September 22 - I found a new outlet for my baseball commentary. Check out my new website, National Pastime.
September 21 - What a night of celebration in Chicago - car door slamming and who knows what else after the Cubs clinched the NL Central title with a 5-4 win over the Cardinals on Saturday afternoon. The Cubs racked up five quick runs and then held on after a three-run homer by Troy Glaus cut the margin to one. This is the Cubs second consecutive NL Central title and third playoff spot in six years. Break up the Cubs!
Tampa Bay's first sellout crowd of the season enjoyed a celebration of their own as the Rays clinched their first-ever playoff spot. Their 7-2 win over the Twins assured the Rays of at least the AL wild card position. A 2-1/2 game lead over the Red Sox gives the Rays about a 90% chance of being AL East champions. All this with one of the lowest payrolls in MLB, and from a franchise with a previous season high of 70 wins. All praise and honor to the Rays! It will be easy to root for them in the AL playoffs, and maybe even the World Series, as long as the Phillies (and maybe the Cubs) aren't the opponents.
Not Quite 100% - It's too early to celebrate in Philadelphia, but more nights like Saturday will result in the Phillies' second straight post-season (coolstandings.com puts the Phillies overall chance of making the playoffs at 97.5%). The Phillies survived the Marlins by a nervewracking 3-2 score. Perhaps both offenses were exhausted after Friday's 14-8 slugfest. Hitters one through five for the Phils went 1-19 with 1 RBI and nine strikeouts. Fortunately, Shane Victorino and Greg Dobbs showed up and contributed a homer, double and Dobbs' game-winning RBI single. The Marlins chipped in with two errors to produce an unearned run. The Phils may have caught a break in the 7th, when the Marlins put runners on 2nd and 3rd with no outs. Jorge Cantu tried to score on a grounder to third, but was thrown out at the plate by Phils 3B Greg Dobbs on a very close play. The replay showed that Cantu may have pushed Carlos Ruiz' foot off the plate before Ruiz applied the tag, but the out call held. The rest of the Marlins offense was about as weak as the Phillies - 16 strikeouts, nine by starter Joe Blanton in five innings, and including all three outs recorded by Phillies closer Brad Lidge in his 39th save in as many chances.
When Your Pitcher is Your Best Hitter - The Mets had a strange game in Atlanta as future-Hall-of-Fame starter Pedro Martinez had a better game with the bat (double and 2 RBI) than he did pitching (4 ER in 6 IP, including a grim three-run first). The rest of the Mets offense never got started against any of four Braves pitchers, as the Braves won 4-2.
Coming Up - The two games flipped the NL East standings, giving the Phils a half-game lead with seven to play (eight for the Mets). Philadelphia continues its series in Florida later this afternoon - Jamie Moyer opposes Chris Volstad. The matchup may favor the Marlins and Volstad has pitched very well lately, while Moyer was hit hard by the Braves in his last start. The 21-year-old Volstad (he'll be 22 on Tuesday) started the season in Double A. Moyer, now 45, pitched in major league games for the Chicago Cubs in 1986, months before Volstad was born.
The Mets send Mike Pelfrey (13-10) against Braves' rookie James Parr. Through two innings, it's looking good for the Mets as they lead 4-1.
Becoming an increasingly peripheral story, the Milwaukee meltdown continued with a 4-3 loss to Cincinnati. They do lead the Reds 4-1 through four innings of the series finale today.
September 20 - Miami Heat Wilts Phils - I got a better night's sleep so I'm up during daylight hours watching the Ryder Cup and reviewing last night's baseball action.
While watching the Rays-Twins game on ESPN, I followed the Phils-Marlins, first on http://www.foxsports.com/mlb and then on http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/, which provided far superior coverage.
You'd think that in a game where they scored in five separate innings, hit three homers and scored eight runs, the Phils would have a chance to beat even the red-hot Marlins. Wrong! A five-run first and six-run fifth propelled the Fish to a relatively easy 14-8 win in Miami. After a brilliant complete game win against Milwaukee in his last start, Phils' starter Brett Myers gave up 10 earned runs in four-plus innings. After 17 pitches in the first inning, the Marlins had five hits and five runs. Despite the bad start, the Phillies were still in the game, even leading 6-5 after yet another homer (number 46 on the season) from Ryan Howard. But the Marlins replayed the first in their fifth, a six-run assault capped by a 3-run homer from backup shortstop Alfredo Amezaga. So much for getting a break with Hanley Ramirez out of the lineup. Late in the game the Marlins fielded a batter with a .900 batting average - rookie CF Cameron Maybin, who was 9-10 in his brief major league career to that point. An out dropped his average to .818. Still 4-1/2 games behind the Phils for the wild card with just eight games to play, the Marlins are a longshot for the post-season, but so were the Rockies last year.
New Leader - The Mets took care of business, beating the Braves 9-5 in a game that was close most of the way. A late double with two on broke a 5-5 tie. New York takes over first in NL East from the Phils by 1/2 game.
Battered - The Brewers continued their recent collapse with an embarrassing 11-2 loss to Cincinnati, in which the Reds hit seven home runs. Jeff Suppan and Manny Parra absorbed the battering. They trail the Phils by two games in the wild card standings. Oh yeah, the Brewers' elimination number vs. the Cubs in NL Central is one. The Brewers must win all their remaining games while the Cubs lose all theirs just to get to a one-game playoff. I don't even think the Rockies did that, though they did win a one-game playoff.
And Stretched? The Cubs' prospects of winning NL Central took a very small hit, but the confidence of one of their pitchers may have taken a large one as Carlos Zambrano followed his historic no-hitter with a 1.2 6 8 8 3 1 pitching line in the Cubs' 12-6 loss to the Cardinals. Maybe his tired rotator cuff needed another long rest. Zambrano was stretched beyond expectations by his no-hitter, from which he couldn't be removed based on pitch count. Cubs' fans will be watching Zambrano's next start anxiously.
Replay Reversal - ESPN's game had a lot of promise - two contending teams and my favorite analyst Orel Hershiser in the booth. The Rays quickly removed any suspense about the outcome with six runs in the first two innings vs. Twins' starter Nick Blackburn. Now 2-1/2 games back of the White Sox, Minnesota's hopes hinge on a three-game series with the Sox starting on Tuesday. Before then the Twins have to survive two more games with the Rays. The win put the Rays within one win of clinching at least a wild card spot in the playoffs. Cool.
The most dramatic moment in the game came with the score already 6-0 when Rays' slugger Carlos Pena hit a high drive to right field with two runners on. Seemingly headed toward the stands and a home run, the ball suddenly bounced back onto the field. The umpire with the call signaled ground rule double. From my comfy couch I cried, "Replay! Home run!" The new replay rule was developed exactly for this situation, to determine whether a ball cleared a barrier for a home run. The TV replay showed that the umpire's call was based on the belief that a fan reached into the field of play to deflect the ball back into play. My call was that the ball was already in the stands when the fan dropped it.
A few minutes in the replay room confirmed my view for the umpires. The crew chief emerged, circling his hand in the "home run" motion. This was the first on-field call reversed by the new replay system. The Rays scored two more runs and the fan watched the rest of the game from his seat, rather than being ejected for interfering for a ball in play.
Substance Over Style - The Red Sox kept pace with the Rays with a 4-3 win over the Blue Jays in a game played in retro uniforms. Arrayed in their blue popsicle knits, the Jays had to believe it's better to play good than look good.
Thome, Thome, Thome - The White Sox improved their prospects dramatically with a nice 9-4 win over Kansas City, breaking the Royals' 7-game winning streak. Jim Thome hit his 33rd HR of the season, number 540 of his remarkably productive career. Thome is 38 years old. Another season as a DH could put him in the all-time top ten for home runs, although Alex Rodriguez, with 553 homers, will probably beat him to the spot. Two more seasons would allow Thome to challenge Frank Robinson's total of 586, currently seventh on the all-time list. I probably need to advance Thome into "sure thing" status for the Hall of Fame.
September 19 - Phils Enjoy Southern Hospitality - It's early Friday morning and I hope the sleeping pill hasn't sunk in too deeply.
There was plenty of action in both leagues yesterday to keep us awake. In the afternoon thriller, the Milwaukee Brewers were fewer than 2" from a 6-2, rubber-game win over the Cubs. But those 2" were the distance betweeen Brewers' LF Ryan Braun's glove and a Cubs' fly ball with two outs and no one on in the bottom of the ninth. Reputedly a reasonable fielder in LF, Braun got a poor jump on the sinking liner and watched it sail under his glove and skitter away for a double. A couple batters later, the Cubs had a run in and two runners on for rookie C Geovany Soto, who cemented his Rookie of the Year Award with a game-tying three run HR into the left-centerfield bleachers. A game seemingly won by Brewers is now tied at six.
Squandered chances summarize the 10th and 11th, most egregiously by the Brewers, who put runners on 2nd and 3rd with no outs and still couldn't score. Soto's attempt for two-sided hero button fell into Corey Hart's glove with two outs and two on in the 11th.
The Cubs got their big hit in the 12th, a single by Derrek Lee with men on second and third to get a great 7-6 win and cut their NL Central magic number to two. After a "routine" win yesterday, the Brewers got another skunky batch that may take days to wash off their palates. Ryan Braun moved from 3B to LF for defensive reasons. I wonder if new manager Dale Sveum will consider a late-inning defensive replacement. With a 4-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth, you're really not counting on your slugging left fielder to get another time at bat. The Phillies use this strategy with LF Pat "The Bat" Burrell; I'm not sure who is caddy is now that Jayson Werth as a regular gig in RF. Could be ageless So Taguchi, or a young OF off the 40-man roster.
Even though they're leading NL East, the Phils have to feel good about putting another game between themselves and the Brewers if it comes to that. The Phils won a spine-tingler Thursday night, 4-3 over the Braves. Amazingly this was the Phils' ninth straight win over the Braves in The Ted during the 2008 season. Without those nine wins, the Phils are a dreary 33-36 on the road.
Cole Hamels and Mike Hampton matched up in this one. The Phils started well with a 2-run first aided by an error. Ryan Howard drove in his MLB-leading 138th run with a single through the shift. The Braves quickly tied the game on recent acquisition Casey Kotchman's 1st NL homer. The game continued tied 2-2 until the top of the sixth when Pat Burrell ripped a long home run to left off Hampton. Hampton pitched through the seventh, giving up just two earned runs, an encouraging sign for a great athlete and competitor since he signed a long-term deal with the Braves several years ago. The Astros fan in me says he never should have left Houston, where the fans loved his small stature and big heart. It's good to see Mike pitching again. I wish him lots of luck now that the Phils are out of town.
The Phils gave back an unearned run on Jimmy Rollins' failure to catch a popup that was probably Pat Burrell's ball. Brad Lidge made the error moot with a strong 9th (2Ks, the last against league-leading hitter Chipper Jones to end the game) for his 38th save in 38 chances. Despite my preference for position players and starters over relievers, I have to say that the Phils got the better so far of last off-season's deal with the Astros. The 'Stros got young, speedy OF Michael Bourn (.225, 5 HR, 25 RBI, slew of SB). Lidge has posted 38 saves in 38 chances, and solidified the end of the bullpen so that relievers Chad Durbin, JC Romero and Ryan Madson have been able to settle into their roles. Assuming the Phils get there, let's hope that Lidge doesn't contract playoff fever. At least it seems that his nemesis (isn't he every pitcher's nemesis) Alberto Pujols won't be there.
I have less to say about the Mets 7-2 win over the Nationals, other than that a loss might have crushed their spirit. Johan Santana started for the Mets, pitched seven strong innings, and left the on-and-off bullpen with a lead they couldn't lose.
So the NL standings still find PHL over NYM by 1/2 game in NL East. The Cubs magic number over the Brewers is just two. The Crew is 1-1/2 games behind NYM for the wild card. Both lurking and streaking are the Florida Marlins, winners of eight straight, and now just 5 games back of the Mets. They have just 10 games left, but six of them are with the Phils (three this weekend in Miami) and Mets (three next weekend at Shea). With the same 80-72 record as the Marlins but heading in the other direction are the Astros, losers of five straight after their hurricane-caused exile from Houston to "neutral site" games with the Cubs in Milwaukee.
Oh yeah, my AL Rookie of Year candidate Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay bolstered his case with three HRs in an 11-8 loss to Minnesota. The Rays still lead the Red Sox by 1-1/2 games. Minnesota's big win pulled them to within 1-1/2 games of the White Sox, who got pounded 9-2 by the Yankees, as various Yankee hitters swing for special prizes (or maybe that next contract) in "the last week of Yankee Stadium." Sadly, ESPN is planning to follow this story ad nauseum on Sunday. At least the Yanks play the White Sox, who are contending.
September 17 - Rookies of Year - Back to this subject, which I blithely sluffed off during last week's update. Fifteen seconds of thought would have identified two great candidates - Tampa Bay 3B Evan Longoria in the AL (voted onto All-Star team by the fans as the last reserve), and Chicago C Geovany Soto in the NL (voted onto All-Star team as a starter). Both players have had decent second halves, although Longoria had a stint on the DL. I'm going with these guys, though here are some other names worthy of consideration.
I know that OF Jacoby Ellsbury has started most of the season for the Red Sox, and leads the AL in stolen bases. Twins SP Kevin Slowey is a possibility. He's 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA and two shutouts. He pitched 66 innings in 2007, so I'm not sure that he's a rookie. New York's Joba Chamberlain got a lot of attention and pitched 95 innings to a 4-3 record and 2.56 ERA before shutting down. A clearer role and more innings would have helped his cause. 23-year-old lefty John Danks has had a nice season with the White Sox with a 10-8 record and 3.32 ERA. I'm surprised to see him listed as a rookie in that he threw 139 IP in 2007.
In the NL, Cubs' OF Kosuke Fukudome, although 31-years-old and a veteran of many seasons in Japan, qualifies as a MLB rookie. His weak hitting in the second half (BA down to .261) will probably keep him from being named Rookie of the Year, despite being voted onto the All-Star starting lineup. In a similar situation is Dodger pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who in his first MLB season after many years in Japan, is 9-10 with a 3.77 ERA; nice for a fourth starter, but probably not award-worthy.
September 17 - Deja Vu in NL East? Both the Phillies and Mets must have a sense of deja vu this morning as the NL East pennant race unfolds. Led by a late-inning triple and HR from streaky slugger (and more frequently mentioned as MVP candidate) Ryan Howard, the Phils pulled off a thrilling 8-7 win over the Braves in Atlanta, while the Mets pounded both their bats and psyches into the ground in a galling 1-0 loss to the last-place Nationals. The outcomes put the Phillies up by 1/2-game in NL East, a situation that must look eerily similar to the Mets' historic collapse in 2007.
The Mets can be comforted, I guess, in holding their own 1/2-game lead in the wild card standings over the slumping Brewers, who lost their fifth straight; this one to the Cubs 5-4. The Brewers' loss came in a game started by heretofore unbeatable CC Sabathia, and in interim manager Dale Sveum's first game at the tap (I decided that one couldn't be at the "helm" of Brewers). The Cubs' magic number to clinch NL Central is now just four, though I imagine the Brewers' focus on the standings has moved elsewhere.
Rare for him, but consistent with what's been a high-scoring series between the Phils and Braves this year, Phils' starter Jamie Moyer had a rough outing, giving up 6 ER in 5.2 IP (though the last three runs scored on hits off relievers Chad Durbin and Scott Eyre). The bullpen hung tough in the seventh and eighth so that Howard could both drive in and score a run with a triple just over LF Omar Infante's head in the seventh, and then give the Phils the lead in the eighth with a 2-run HR to left off Braves' left hander Mike Gonzalez. Brad Lidge got his 37th save in as many attempts in a "Wild Thing"-like ninth inning that featured three walks and a game-ending strikeout.
With the 4-5 game, Howard improved his batting average to a personal season-high .249. His HR and RBI totals of 45 and 137 both lead the majors by wide margins. After being passed over for the NL All-Star team despite leading the league in both HR and RBI, Howard may be more difficult to ignore in MVP balloting, especially if the Phils hold onto a playoff spot. Still, his second half has been a microcosm of the season - .186 BA between the All-Star break and late August; an OPS of about 1.500 since. Managers are going to soon stop throwing to Howard in game-critical situations. The Phillies would be well served if LF Pat "The Bat" Burrell could break out of his second half slump.
The Mets wasted a strong start from Mike Pelphrey (7 IP, 1 ER) by scratching out just four singles and a HBP off Nationals' starter Odalis Perez and two relievers. They put two runners on with one out in the eighth, but top-of-the-order hitters Jose Reyes and Ryan Church failed to produce the clutch hit.
The Brewers loss to the Cubs was more action-packed, but still a loss as the Chicagoans amassed just enough runs off ace CC Sabathia to hold on for the win. Conceding nothing, Cubs' manager Lou Piniella used five pitchers to secure the win. Alfonso Soriano hit his club-leading 29th HR. He's missed about 1/3 of the season with injuries. In a full campaign, Soriano would have 40 HRs and 100 RBIs out of the leadoff spot and be right in the middle of NL MVP speculation. My favorite player on the 2008 Cubs is utility star Mark DeRosa (pictured above). A former QB at the University of Pennsylvania, DeRosa has put together a career year offensively with 20 HRs, 96 runs, and an 854 OPS while playing significant time at four defensive positions (RF, LF, 2B, 3B). He's also played innings at 1B and SS. Aramis Ramirez's power figures might anoint him the "best player on the best team", but for overall play, I'd chose DeRosa as the Cubs' MVP.
In a post-firing interview, former Brewers' manager Ned Yost admitted that he "didn't have the answers". If you have the answers, you should probably send them to interim manager Dale Sveum.
Braves' pitching bright spot Jair Jurrgens (13-9, 3.62 ERA) starts Wednesday's game against the Phils. Charlie Manuel counters with rookie J.A. Happ (0-0, 5.71 ERA) to take Kyle Kendrick's spot in the rotation. Kendrick has been miserable in recent starts. Two rookies take the mound in the Mets-Nats game. Brandon Knight (0-0, 6.43 ERA) will make his fourth appearance and second start for the Mets. Shairon Martis (0-2, 2.70 ERA) starts for the Nats.
In Chicago, Ben Sheets (13-8, 2.97 ERA) will try to halt the Brewers' slide. Jason Marquis (10-8, 4.36 ERA) takes the hill for the Cubs.
September 15 - Astros Blown Away - I'm in the middle of watching a potentially remarkable game as the Cubs and Astros play their second of two games in Miller Park in Milwaukee. The series was relocated from Houston by Hurricane Ike. As you probably have heard, Cubs' pitcher Carlos Zambrano pitched a no-hitter last night (10 Ks, one BB, one HBP - see photo from Nicco DiNuzzo of the Chicago Tribune). Zambrano's no-hitter was the first by a Cub pitcher since 1972 and the first at a neutral site anywhere since 1900 (though the neutrality of the largely relocated Chicagoans could be debated). Through five more innings today, the Astros still don't have a hit in the series. Today's Cub starter is Ted Lilly. Back to the TV.
The unprecedented second straight no-hit attempt lasted one through the sixth, but infielder Mark Loretta finally broke it up in the seventh with a clean single to right. Just before this hit, pinch hitter Reggie Abercrombie hit a shot to third that ate up 3B Aramis Ramirez. My first impression was of a hit, but the scorer called an error, and probably rightfully so as Ramirez played the ball off to the side rather than getting in front of it. Cubs CF Jim Edmonds also maintained the suspense in the sixth with a diving catch. I was rooting for an Astro hit. It just seemed like too much for the team to be blown across the country to play two "home" games in front of hostile crowds, only to be no-hit in consecutive games for the first time in MLB history.
The Cubs "held on" to win 6-1, as the Astros managed just the one hit in the two-game series.
More from MLB - Surprisingly, today's big story from Milwaukee was not a potential second no-hitter, but rather the firing of Brewers' manager Ned Yost with just twelve games left in the season. A grim and forboding four-game sweep in Philadelphia, which reduced the Brewers' wild card lead from four games to zero, hit a little too close to the bone for Brewers' management, who watched Yost and his team lose a big late-season lead in 2007 and miss the playoffs. Longtime coach Dale Sveum takes over as Brewers' interim (I assume) manager. Fox Sports Ken Rosenthal had an interesting take on the situation, noting that the Brewers will likely lose both pitching aces CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency, and that despite having a young, talented nucleus (Ryan Braun, JJ Hardy, Prince Fielder), this team's best chance at a post-season run is probably right now. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Using the Phillies sweep to deftly shift the focus to NL East, the boys from the City of Brotherly Love did it all to tie the Brewers and get back in the race with the Mets (1 game behind). They scored at least six in every game and gave up no more than three. In the third game they stormed back from 3-1 deficit to win 7-3 for Joe Blanton. Both unexpected and gratifying were great pitching performances by both Jamie Moyer and Brett Myers on three days rest. Myers pitched a complete game 2-hitter to close the series in the second game of a day-night doubleheader. Ryan Howard continued his slugging September ways. He now has a ML-leading 44 HRs and 133 RBI. The Mets could have a two-game lead, but their young bullpen let a 4-2 ninth inning lead turn into a 7-4 loss to the Braves. Still, the Mets have a slugging lineup (Wright, Delgado and Beltran all have 100 RBIs), Johan Santana and two games up in the loss column over the Phils. They still have to be considered the favorites.
In NL Central, the Cubs mini-sweep of the Astros, combined with the Brewers woes (3-11 in September), puts the Northsiders in great shape to win the division. Their magic number over the Brewers is just six with 14 games to play. A tough situation for the Astros and two losses in Milwaukee may have put the brakes on the hottest team in baseball (12 of 13 wins before Ike). They now trail the Phils and Brewers for the wild card by 2-1/2 games - well within range, but tougher with their spell apparently broken.
St. Louis and Florida remain on the fringes of the wild card race - 4-1/2 and 5-1/2 games back respectively. The Marlins are riding a five-game winning streak. The Cards are trying to break the same losing streak.
The Dodgers, now 4-1/2 ahead of the D-Backs, appear to have NL West under control, barring a not unprecedented 8-game losing streak. Still, the D-Backs might not have the offense to capitalize on one more Dodger slump. Giants starter Tim Lincecum remains one of the best stories of the season. The slight, 24-year-old righty pitched his first-ever complete game shutout (a four-hitter) in beating the Padres 7-0. He improved his W/L record to 17-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.43. Lincecum also leads the majors with 237 strikeouts. Arizona's prospects of catching the Dodgers will not be enhanced by facing Lincecum on Thursday night.
In the AL West , the Angels continue to play hard as they drive for the best record in the league. They lead the Rays by 2-1/2 games for this distinction, and extra home game it brings. The Rays and Red Sox battle for AL East supremacy in a three-game series starting in St. Petersburg tonight, with the Rays leading by one game (two in All Important Loss Column - as I saw this phrase written by a columnist). Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch in the first game. The Red Sox magic number over the Twins for the wild card is just eight.
The White Sox lead the Twins by 1-1/2 games in AL Central. The Sox play in New York, while the Twins go to Cleveland this week.
September 12 - Rain, Rain Go Away - I don't know what the record is (maybe ESPN does), but six major league games were postponed tonite due to rain. Four in the Northeast (at New York (2), Baltimore and Philly) and Chicago (WS), likely due to vestiges of Hurricane Gustav. Cubs vs. Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston, because of the arrival of Hurricane Ike in the area. Saturday's game between the two NL Central teams has also been postponed. Sunday's game is in limbo, with the best option presented so far being a doubleheader on otherwise open Monday and an if-needed make-up game on September 29. Having won 12 of their last 13, and dealing with the threat to their homes and families by the storm, the Astros couldn't have had a less opportune time for a hurricane to hit their home town. Still, many will have it worse, especially the "heroes" who stayed behind in Galveston, likely to be swamped by a 22 foot wall of water from storm surge.
In the few games that mattered, the LADs beat Colorado in Denver by 7-2. The Rockies reign as NL champ is very near its end, as the team has lost six straight and trails the Dodgers by 9-1/2 games with 14 to play. After losing eight in a row, the Dodgers have won 12 of 13 to take command of NL West. Arizona finally won a game, beating Cincy 3-2, but remain 3-1/2 back with just 16 to play. Across SoCal, the LAAsoA (lassos?) clinched the AL West on Thursday night by spanking the Yankees while the Rangers lost to the A's. Also on Friday, The Red Sox got a big win over Toronto, 7-0 behind the 8-inning, 3-hit pitching of Tim Wakefield, the AL's version of Jamie Moyer.
September 10 - Ray's Day - This was a good night for LAD fans. They beat SD 6-2, in SD no less. In San Francisco, the Giants blew a 4-2 lead in the top of the ninth, but scored a run in the bottom to beat the D-Backs 5-4. LAD now leads NL West by 2.5 games.
Elsewhere in the NL, the Astros are charging hard (winning 12 of 13) but their party may end soon. Much of their starting "rotation" for the next few days is either coming off injury or "to be announced". Still, they are only 4 games behind the Brewers for the wildcard and playing much better than the three teams ahead of them - Brewers, Phillies and Cards. Their offense was terrific last night in a 9-3 win over Pittsburgh. Batters 2 thru 5 went 11-17 with 8 runs scored and 6 RBI.
The Phils fell 2.5 back of the Mets by losing to the Marlins 10-8 while the Mets were beating the Nats by the same score. Philly couldn't dig all the way out of a 7-1 hole. The Mets came back from 7-5. Carlos Delgado hit two more HRs (4 in last two games). The Mets bullpen pitched 5.2 innings and gave up just one run.
In the AL, the Rays got a dramatic win over the Red Sox in Boston, scoring two runs off closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth to turn a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 lead. Troy Percival held off the Sox in the bottom of the ninth to stretch the Rays lead in AL East back to 1-1/2 games. In AL Central, the red hot Blue Jays (winners of 10 in a row) beat the White Sox twice while Minnesota beat KC. The White Sox lead is down to one game.
The Yankees clobbered LAA 7-1 while the Rangers beat the Mariners, postponing any celebration in Anaheim for at least one more day.
September 8 - Once again, I apologize for the very long delay between updates. Last Monday, when I might have been posting an update, we received an unwelcome visit from Gustav, Hurricane Gustav, that is. The power came back on Sunday morning. So once again, here's a two-week update.
The 2008 Major League Baseball season is down to about 20 games. The list of contending teams grows shorter, but there are still some important questions about which teams will make the post-season and who they'll play. Let's do this league by league.
In the American League, the Angels, Rays and Red Sox look to be sure things for the post-season. The Angels magic number to close out the second-place Rangers and win the AL West is just three. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia will try to keep his team sharp, organize his pitching and watch the other races with interest, as they will determine the Angels' first-round opponent. The Rays and Red Sox are locked in a close race for the AL East crown with the Rays leading by 1-1/2 games. While the Rays lead in the standings, the Sox schedule looks much more favorable with 14 home games and just 6 road games. The Rays have the opposite schedule (14 on road and 7 at home). Both teams have played .700+ ball at home and sub-.500 on the road. The Rays have a chance to negate this advantage starting tonight in a three-game series with the Sox at Fenway Park. A couple of wins would really enhance their chances to win AL East. The return of All-Star 3B Evan Longoria should help. Boston comes to Tampa in a return series starting next Monday. It will take a Mets-like collapse or two to put either the Blue Jays (now third ahead of the Yankees after an 8-game winning streak) or the Yankees in the post-season.
I wavered on how the AL Central would shake out; first thinking that the return of Francisco Liriano would favor the Twins and then seeing how a preponderance of road games might hurt them. The latter has played out so far, as the Twins are now 2-1/2 games behind the White Sox, despite the Sox winning just four of their last ten games. Both teams have 10 road games left. The Sox have a tough immediate task, hosting the red-hot Blue Jays in a four-game series while the Twins host the Royals. If they can stay close, the Twins will have a last shot at the Sox in a three-game series in Minnesota during the last week of the season. An AL Central wild card slot is mathematically possible, but unlikely as the Twins trail the Red Sox by 6-1/2 games. Even the White Sox trail their Red brethren by four full games.
I now expect the AL post-season matchups to be Angels vs. Rays (wild card) and Red Sox vs. White Sox.
The National League offers more uncertainty about which teams will qualify, as close races exist in both NL East and NL West. I'll start with the NL Central, where the Cubs hold a four-game lead over the Brewers and seem like sure thing for the post-season, though a recent 3-7 stretch might give Brewer fans hope that they could still win the division. Worrisome for the Cubs has been Carlos Zambrano's tired arm, which caused him to miss a couple of starts. Buoyed by the amazing pitching of second-half rental CC Sabathia, who missed pitching a no-hitter because of his own poor fielding play, the Brewers trail the Cubs by four games and lead the Phillies by the same margin for the wild card. There's not much season left, but it's still not impossible for either the Cards or Astros to sneak in for the wild card. Winners of nine of their last ten to go nine games over .500, the Astros look like the more likely candidate. They have four games at home with lowly Pittsburgh this week, which could propel them closer to the playoff mix.
In NL East, the Mets and Phillies will battle for the crown and likely the lone playoff spot. In a just-completed three-game series in New York, both teams did the minimum they needed to do. Behind fabulous starts by Brett Myers (CG, 3H, 10K) and Jamie Moyer (7 IP, 2 H), the Phils won the first two games to pull within a game of the New Yorkers. The Mets rallied behind Johan Santana (7 IP, 2R) and Carlos Delgado (2 HRs) in the third game to maintain a 2-game margin. The season series between the two teams is over. The schedule favors the Mets who have boatloads of games with the NL East weak sisters, Atlanta and Washington. The Phillies have six games with the Marlins and a series with Brewers in their next two weeks of play.
Someone will win the NL West. The list of contenders still hasn't expanded beyond the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. A "where-did-that-come-from" eight-game winning streak (still alive) has launched the Dodgers into first place, 1-1/2 games ahead of the D-Backs. The "Blues", as my online friends call them, finished their season series with the D-Backs with a nifty three-game sweep in LA. The rest of the schedule is either good news or bad news for LAD, depending on how you look at it. The good news is that all their remaining games are against teams with sub-.500 records. The bad news is that the next 10 of these games are on the road, where the Dodgers have a grim 28-40 record. The Dodgers finish in San Francisco, where the Giants and their fans could salvage something from their lackluster season by knocking their arch-rivals out of the post-season. Games with the Rockies and Giants make up much of Arizona's remaining schedule. If their offense can rebound from a dismal weekend in LA (5 runs in 3 games), the D-Backs should be able to make a strong run. Worrisome for the D-Backs are Randy Johnson's sore shoulder that caused him to miss Sunday's start against the Dodgers, and recent poundings taken by staff ace Brandon Webb, which have ballooned his ERA to 3.41 and diminished his "sure-thing" status for the NL Cy Young Award. I suspect he's more concerned about getting his act together to carry his team into the playoffs.
My current NL playoff picks - Mets vs Brewers (wild card) and Cubs vs. (ahem) Dodgers.
It may be a little early to get into individual honors, but why should I leave myself out of a discussion that's raging elsewhere. For AL MVP, White Sox slugger Carlos Quentin knocked himself out of contention with a self-inflicted (accidental) injury. Roaring to the top of the field is Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia, who now leads the AL in batting at .330 with a ton of extra base hits. Pedroia is on the field and at the top of an otherwise variable Red Sox lineup every day. Teammate Kevin Youkilis is a personal favorite. His offensive statistics and durability compare favorably to Pedroia. Other contenders could be Tampa Bay slugger Carlos Pena (despite a low batting average), perennial contender Alex Rodriguez, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer from the Twins, White Sox OF Jermaine Dye, Indians OF Grady Sizemore, and Ranger stat machines Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler.
For AL Cy Young, Indians' ace Cliff Lee stands pretty clear of the field with 21 wins and a league-leading 2.28 ERA (154 K, 28 BB and just 8 HR in 202 IP). Second choice would be Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay. Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez and his likely all-time record save total (currently three short at 54) will get some consideration, but great starters like Lee and Halladay should clearly be favored, having covered three times as many innings as K-Rod.
AL Rookie of Year will take some research. I'll get back to you next week.
AL Manager of Year will go to Rays' skipper Joe Maddon. I think the Twins' Ron Gardenhire deserves serious consideration for blending mediocre individual talents into a winning team. Still Maddon's "worst-to-first" performance with the downtrodden Rays will carry the day.
In the NL, the MVP field is somewhat smaller. The winner will come out of a group including Mets sluggers David Wright and Carlos Delgado, Phillies 2B Chase Utley, Braves 3B Chipper Jones, Cubs 3B Aramis Ramirez, Cards 1B Albert Pujols, and Astros 1B Lance Berkman. Manny Ramirez would be in there if he'd played the whole year in the NL. Wright will get dinged for clutch hitting (less than .240 with men in scoring position); Delgado for a slow start (hit below .240 for the first half); Jones for playing for a loser and missing time with injuries. This brings the field to Utley, A. Ramirez, Pujols and Berkman. Utley drops by the wayside for a sluggish second half. Berkman has been great all year and A. Ramirez is the "best player on the best team", but my choice is the incomparable Albert Pujols. In a year without a player who has truly carried his team to victory, Pujols leads the majors with a .466 OBP, .646 slugging percentage, and 1114 OPS (leads by almost 100 points), and has drawn 93 BB while striking out just 48 times. He is a wonderful fielder at first base. I saw a play this year where he fielded a grounder at first and threw the runner out at third on a force play. Few 1B would try that play and many would throw the ball into left field. Pujols also provides great leadership to a young, rebuilding team that had a very poor 2007 season after winning it all in 2006, another year in which he should have been MVP. The more I write, the more I like Albert Pujols as the 2008 NL MVP.
I think that the Giants' Tim Lincecum (15-3, 2.60 ERA, 216 K in 190 IP with only 10 HRs surrendered) should be a clear choice for NL Cy Young. Brandon Webb's 19 wins for Arizona will get some attention, but his ERA has soared recently to 3.44. Ryan Dempster with 15 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA will get some vote as the "best pitcher on the best team". Johan Santana might be the best pitcher in the league right now, but his slow start and low win total (just 13) will hurt his chances. Like Manny Ramirez, Brewers' ace CC Sabathia would be a strong candidate for the award if he'd played the whole year in the NL, but I don't think that split years qualify for league awards.
Again, NL Rookie of Year requires research. Check back next week.
NL Manager of the Year looks like an almost sure thing for Sweet Lou Piniella, who has Cubs' fans thinking about the team's first World Series appearance in 63 years.
Note - I missed one good MVP candidate from the NL - Florida's outrageously talented SS Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez is hitting .294 (OPS over 900) with 29 HRs and 108 runs. A strong case could have been made for him being the 2007 MVP as he outhit winner Jimmy Rollins by a wide margin while playing the same position. Ramirez's 2008 stats are behind his 2007 campaign, making it very unlikely that he'll be named the MVP.
In which dadlak makes up for lost time with a very long update, and with renewed hope for his favorite team.
August 25 - Welcome Back dadlak -Blogging the Olympics and seeking medical treatment didn't leave quite enough time for an MLB update last week. I'll try to get back on an at-least weekly schedule or more frequently if events warrant.
NL East - This close-to-my-heart division is at the front of my mind too today after I watched the Phillies exciting extra-inning win over the Dodgers on ESPN last night. After a miserable 2-5 West Coast road trip (which included a four-game sweep at Dodger Stadium), the Phils rebounded to take two-of-three from Washington and three in a row from Los Angeles at home. Their long-slumbering offense even showed signs of awakening by scoring 17 games in two games vs. LA. The Mets pulled out to a 2-1/2 game lead, but fell back to just 1/2 game ahead after losing two straight to the Astros. The bullpen has been a big issue for the New Yorkers since Billy Wagner went to the DL. The Mets and Manager Jerry Manuel has decided to go with the closer-by-committee model rather than searching the waiver wire for a replacement. Ominously for the Phils, Mets' ace Johan Santana seems to be rounding into multiple-Cy Young form. The Marlins are just three games over .500, and also just five games out of first. They could still be a factor, but seem to be heading in the wrong direction. The Nationals broke a 13-game losing streak, but still trail by 2-1/2 games behind the Mariners for the worst record in baseball. Their "worstness" is magnified by playing in the National League, which lost the Interleague series to the AL by a wide margin once again. On the first pass of this paragraph, I forgot about the Braves, maybe deservedly so for a team who've lost eight of their last ten to fall 15-1/2 games out of first.
NL Central - The Phils trip to Wrigley Field this weekend could result in a matchup of division leaders. The Cubs continue their excellent play and hold a 4-1/2 game lead over the surging Brewers, who look more and more like the NL wild card team. Brewers rent-a-pitcher CC Sabathia has been in Randy Johnson-like Cy Young form since moving over (8-0 with five complete games and 1.59 ERA in 10 starts). Converting reliever Ryan Dempster into a starter has proved to be a great move for the Cubs. Dempster has a 14-5 record and 2.92 ERA with a club-leading 149 strikeouts in 164 innings, outpitching more famous and better-paid teammate Carlos Zambrano (but not outhitting - Zambrano's OPS is 972 vs. Dempster's 382). Dempster has dropped a remarkable 16 successful sacrifice bunts, twice any other Cubs' player. The Cardinals are just 3-1/2 games out of the wild card. Surprisingly, the once offensively-challenged Cardinals now seem solid in that department with the amazing Albert Pujols and solid Ryan Ludwick and Troy Glaus scoring lots of runs. The pitching staff gave up eight to the meager Braves on Saturday, wasting a great game by Pujols (2 doubles and a home run). The Astros are trying to stay close enough to help Lance Berkman win the MVP award. As in most recent years, the Reds and Pirates are looking to next year. Both teams are more than 20 games out of first.
2008's version of 2007's NL East or 2006's NL Central is the NL West. The Diamondbacks, despite being just six games over .500, lead the Dodgers by three games. Arizona helped their offense by acquiring slugger Adam Dunn from the Reds. FOX studio baseball hostess Jeannie Zelasko (queen of the Fox's big-hair broadcasting crew) had a great pregame line about Joe Torre, how he's basking in the SoCal sunshine "and watching the waves of Hall of Famers roll in", the latter a reference to the Dodgers recent acquisitions of Manny Ramirez from the Red Sox and Greg Maddux from the Padres. Maddux had one good start in blue but then gave up seven runs to the Phillies, not an easy thing to do. In fact, another big, but highly unlikely, winning streak could even put the Rockies (now 10 under .500 and 8 games out of first) back in first (though I've been saying this for several weeks). With the rise of young pitching ace Tim Lincecum, the Giants are somewhat less boring, but still no threat in the pennant race. The Padres are inexplicably awful, sharing a 48-82 record with the almost equally disappointing Mariners.
AL East - The Tampa Bay Rays have to be the best "worst-to-first" story in baseball since the 1969 Miracle Mets. Their management ought to get some film of the Mets to help convince the Rays that they can go all the way. Pitching continues to carry the AL East leaders as nine AL teams have scored more runs, but only one, the Blue Jays, have allowed fewer runs than Tampa Bay's total of 515. Much of the charm of the story comes from the Rays (nee Devil Rays) previous 10-year history, during which they amassed a winning percentage under .400 (.399 to be exact), and a season-high victory total of just 70. They now have 79 wins in 2008. Injuries to Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria were supposed to be crippling, but the Rays have won 7 of their last 10 and hold a 4-1/2 game lead over the Red Sox. The Sox have injury problems of their own, as outfielder J.D. Drew recently joined their hobbled ranks. Their lineup on Sunday vs. Toronto included such offensive liablities as Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Varitek, Alex Cora, and Coco Crisp along with rookie Jed Lowrie filling in for Mike Lowell, who's on the DL. Obviously, established hitters such as David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis (who's emerging as a possible MVP candidate), Jason Bay, and Dustin Pedroia will have to be at top form for the Sox to make a run at the Rays, and to even hold on to the wild card over the Yankees and AL Central runnerup (either Twins or White Sox). Pitching ace Josh Beckett has also had some arm troubles. The situation with the Yankees will be clarified this week in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, the last regular season games between the teams at The House That Ruth Built. The Blue Jays continue to have a frustrating season - streaks of competence, but not enough overall to get in contention in the tough AL East. They're three games over .500 and three games behind the Yankees in fourth. Even seven games below .500, the Orioles have far exceeded my expectations. DH Aubrey Huff has been the best in the AL at that position (925 OPS), and Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Luke Scott have all emerged as contributors. With a .402 OBP, Markakis is particularly exciting at just 24-years-old.
Two relatively anonymous teams (at least to me) are battling for the top spot in AL Central. Both the White Sox (currently up by 1/2 game) and the Twins play great on the home (winning 2 of 3 or better) and poorly on the road (sub-.500) and have a combination of familiar and unknown players. Best known for the Sox are OF Jermaine Dye, C A J Piersynzski, 3B Joe Crede (all holdovers from the 2005 world champions), DH Jim Thome, 1B Paul Konerko, and of course OF Ken Griffey, Jr., recently acquired from Cincinnati. Lesser known are OF Carlos Quentin, who will become much better known if he wins the AL MVP award, which he could do with 36 HRs, 99 RBIs and 975 OPS so far this year and SS Orlando Cabrera, who's not a great offensive player, but is a dependable major league shortstop who's played recently on several playoff teams, most notably the 2004 World Series champs in Boston. Cabrera is also well known by his banker, as he signed a $10 million per year contract with the Sox. CF Nick Swisher came over from the A's to fill the CF void left by Aaron Rowand's move to the NL. On the mound, rookie starters John Danks and Gavin Floyd have the best ERAs and W/L records. Veterans Javier Vasquez and Mark Buehrle have been good enough. Bobby Jenks has done terrific work as the Sox closer, with 26 saves and a 1.71 ERA in 46 appearances. For the more budget-conscious Twins, the known quantities are former MVP Justin Morneau at 1B, and All-Star Joe Mauer behind the plate. Manager Ron Gardenhire seems to do a great job juggling the rest of the roster as no one's stats really stand out, and only youngsters LF Delmon Young and CF Carlos Gomez, acquired from Tampa Bay and the Mets respectively, have played in at least 120 games, and them to OPS of only 730 and 639 respectively. Somehow it all adds up, as the Twins are fifth in the AL in runs scored, despite being 7th in OBP, 9th in Slugging and 13th in home runs. Pitchingwise, the best thing the Twins do is avoid walking opposing hitters. They're first in that category while being seventh in ERA. By far their most impressive pitcher is closer Joe Nathan, with an 0.98 ERA and 35 saves in 55 appearances. Slightly better than average has worked otherwise, as young starters Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey share the ERA lead among starters at 3.74 and Glen Perkins leads the team in wins with 11. None makes more than $425,000 for the season. Again, manager Gardenhire is doing a great job managing his talent. Only Boof Bonser has thrown a significant number of innings (just over 100) while posting a terrible ERA (6.22). The Twins hopes are buoyed by the comeback of young supertalent Francisco Liriano, who won 13 games in 2007 before being injured. Less promising is a long road trip in early September made necessary by the Republican National Convention. The Tigers have been among MLB's most disappointing teams this year, as talk of a superteam with the acquisition of Marlins Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis has been met with the walk of a team two games under .500 with the sixth ranked offense and ninth ranked pitching in the AL. Will management try again next year with this crew, or continue with the breakup that began with waiving Gary Sheffield and trading Pudge Rodriguez? The Indians have won seven in a row, but it's far too little and too late to get back to the playoff spot that they (and I) expected. They already jettisoned CC Sabathia and Casey Blake. 2007 postseason relief star Rafael Betancourt has been a disaster in 2008 (6+ ERA). It will be interesting to see which direction they go next year. As for the Royals, well, they're the Royals and apparently immune from ever contending.
Being a two-week report, this wrapup has gotten a little long, so I summarize the AL West. Angels, Angels, Angels - now by 17 games with Francisco Rodriguez just posting his 50th save. The Rangers' recent slump has jeopardized any hope that Josh Hamilton or Ian Kinsler had in the MVP voting. The As are boring. The Mariners are terrible, despite putting Ichiro on the field every game (counternote - Ichiro's 754 OPS isn't very imposing - he's been a singles-hitting machine this year - just 14 doubles, 6 triples and 5 homers among 171 hits, with a modest 45 walks in 130 games). Baseball stats guru Bill James noted years ago that singles hitters without high OBPs and no power are among baseball's most overrated players.
In which dadlak's report devolves into a serial injury report. Later, he revisits Randy Johnson's remarkable 2008 season.
August 10 - Ouch, That Hurts! The season is almost three-quarters complete, but only one division appears settled. With a 14-game lead and repeat successes against the Red Sox and Yankees, the Angels look like a sure thing in AL West and a favorite to reach the World Series. Tampa Bay continues to hold the lead in AL East (now 4.5 games over Boston), but 26 road games and an untested nature makes the Rays no more than an odds-on favorite to win AL East. Six games ahead of the Twins and 8.5 over the Yankees, the Rays look solid for at least a wildcard spot in the playoffs, barring a complete collapse.
In the National League, the East could be won by any of three teams, the division-leading Phils, the Mets, or the surprising Marlins, who continue to get enough homers and just enough pitching to stay in the race. The Cubs have what Billy Packer might call a "working margin" in the Central, four games over the Brewers, and six over the Cards. At 16 games over .500, the Brewers are in good shape for the wildcard, but if you check back to last year's post on this date, I didn't hold out much hope for the Phillies and Rockies, who both made the playoffs. The Diamondbacks manage to stay just over .500 and just ahead of the Dodgers.
AL East - With an 11-3 win over the Mariners, the division-leading Rays posted their 71st win of the season, a franchise record (previous best was 70 wins in 2004). The Rays also welcomed injured outfielder Rocco Baldelli (pictured above), a participant in many then-Devil Ray losses, back to their lineup. Baldelli takes Carl Crawford's place on the roster as Crawford went on the 15-day DL with a hand jury. Baldelli may be rusty--he's played just 35 games since the start of the 2007 season (none this year), and even missed 70 games of the 2006 season. In that season, his best statistically of four major league seasons, Baldelli was a swing-and-a-miss guy, walking just 14 times against 70 strikeouts in 364 at-bats. Overall, Baldelli hit .302 in 2006 with an OPS of 872, but this is by far his best production. His return is a nice emotional story, but I doubt it will help the Rays much in their playoff quest. The Red Sox sent veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to the 15-day DL; no indication that Curt Schilling is ready to take his place on the roster. In fact, the Sox injury report lists Schilling as out for the season. David Ortiz recently came off the DL, but hasn't contributed much, particularly since teammate Manny Ramirez went to the Dodgers. Since the trade, Ortiz is 3-for-28 with seven strikeouts and just five walks, as opposing pitchers seem comfortable pitching to him. The Yankees also put a starting pitcher on the DL as Joba Chamberlain went out with rotator cuff tendinitis. The Yankees will be hard-pressed to make up their standing without Chamberlain either starting or setting up. Yankee starters Chien-Ming Wang and Carl Pavano are also on the DL. According to Yankee manager Joe Girardi, Wang isn't expected back this season. Wang suffered a foot tendon injury while running the bases in an interleague game. Pavano, whom the Yankees snatched up at $11 million per season after an 18-8 season with the Marlins in 2004, has pitched just 111 innings in pinstripes in the last four years. He did pitch 3.2 scoreless innings in a rehab start with Trenton on August 8. A healthy Pavano pitching the Yankees into the playoffs would be a wonderful story, but probably needs a good fiction writer to make it happen.
The White Sox and Twins have been swapping first and second in AL Central. On Sunday the Sox nipped the Red Sox 6-5 while the Twins lost 5-4 in 12 innings to the Royals to put the Sox up by a slim half-game. Both teams have been great at home, but lackluster on the road. The return of Twins' starter Francisco Liriano could put them over the top. Liriano was almost unhittable in 2007 (12-3, 2.16 ERA) before being sidelined by injury. In his first two starts coming back from an April injury, Liriano is 2-0 with a 2.23 ERA. Tigers are no worse off than the Rockies were last year at this time, but they haven't developed any traction, losing seven of their last ten games.
Setting up their rotation for the postseason and staying healthy are the main challenges for the Angels, who lead the Rangers by 14 games in AL West. The Angels showed some vulnerability in a hideous 14-9 loss to the Yankees in which they made four errors (three in a six-run eighth inning that gave the game back to the Yankees after new 1B Mark Teixiera had given them a 9-8 lead with a grand slam home run). The Angels beat the Yankees in the other two games of the series in New York and swept a three-game series in Anaheim this weekend, one that ended when Mariano Rivera surrendered a game-ending single to Chone Figgins.
I started with the AL this week because of a discussion on another site, but my heart is still in the NL with the East-leading Phillies, who enjoy a two-game margin over the Mets despite a 23-inning scoreless streak in midweek. A 3-0 blanking by the Marlins was followed by a 12-inning 2-0 loss to the Pirates. Once the Phils started scoring again, they beat Pittsburgh 4-2 and 6-3 to solidify their division lead. Hopefully, the offense will stay energized as the team heads out for a seven-game West Coast road trip. News on the pitching front was mixed. Brett Myers turned in another strong outing on Saturday, but Brad Lidge was unavailable on Sunday due to a "sluggish shoulder". Tom Gordon also appears to be done for the season, as he considers "Tommy John" surgery on his 40-year-old pitching elbow. The Mets have stayed close despite having 13 players, including closer Billy Wagner and starting pitcher John Maine, on the DL. The Braves take second to no one for pitching injuries, having lost future Hall of Famer John Smoltz and staff ace Tim Hudson for the season along with Tom Glavine and reliever Rafael Soriano for lengthy periods.
In NL Central, the Cubs hold a four-game lead over the Brewers despite playing without closer Kerry Wood (first a blister, then a sore back) on a day-to-day basis. Staff ace Carlos Zambrano got blasted in a 12-3 loss to the Cards, but the team recovered behind Ryan Dempster to beat the Cards 6-2 and take the three-game series. The Brewers remain within sight of the Cubs and in good shape for the wildcard, despite a dugout shoving match between star 1B Prince Fielder and starting pitcher Matt Parra. Fielder later apologized for his role in the fight. The Astros lost NL RBI leader Carlos Lee to a season-ending injury, but pulled within a game of .500. At 12-1/2 games behind the Cubs and 8-1/2 out of the wild card, the Astros remain a very long shot to replay their late-season rush to playoffs of 2005 (or was it 2004?)
What can you say about NL West? Any team that stays above .500 has a great chance to win it. Today, that team is Arizona at 60-58. Like the Tigers in the AL, the Rockies can't get it together enough to threaten. They lost 16-7 to the light-hitting, last-place Padres. Diamondback's future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson probably won't get to 300 career wins this year (he has 293 as I write this), but his last six starts have resulted in a 5-1 record and sub 1.50 ERA with 32 Ks and just two walks. This from a guy who will turn 45 on September 10. He could get as many as 11 more starts - seven wins would make history and likely put the D-Backs in the postseason.
August 1 - Trade Talk - On my usual publication dates I was beating my head against the proverbial wall at the National Scrabble Championship. Four days and a 10-18 record later I'm back at the keyboard with another MLB update.
With a deadline of July 31, trades dominated baseball news the last few days, even ahead of some head-to-head series involving apparently playoff-bound teams. For the first time in history two players with 500-plus career homers were traded at the midseason deadline. For the umpteenth time, Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox had been lobbying for a trade, going so far as to display a hand-lettered "Manny for Favre, Straight Up" sign from the Sox dugout. This time, with just two months left on his seven-year contract, he got one. Ramirez landed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-way deal that also involved the Pirates. As a replacement for Ramirez, the Sox got outfielder Jason Bay from the Pirates. The Pirates picked up four prospects - two each from both the Dodgers and Red Sox. With the Dodgers, Ramirez is reunited with former Sox teammates Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe. He went 2-4 in his first game as a Dodger, a typical 2-1 loss to Randy Johnson and the D-Backs (second consecutive loss to Arizona by that score).
The Cincinnati Reds moved Ken Griffey, Jr. and his 608 lifetime homers along to the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, where he will play center field. Junior played right field for most of this stint with the Reds. Griffey joins aging sluggers Jim Thome and Paul Konerko on the White Sox. I don't quite get this deal, but it does give Chicago another fairly potent left-handed bat either in the lineup or off the bench. With a relatively old team, the White Sox have to play to win now. Junior's debut with Chicago was more satisfying than Manny's as he drove in two runs in a 4-2 win over KC.
Other prominent relocations saw the Yankees instigate three moves, trading for Pirate OF Xavier Nady and for future Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez of the Tigers (to replace injured Jorge Posada), and picking up released Mariner 1B Richie Sexson. Most ominously, the Braves traded 1B Mark Teixiera to the Angels for 1B Casey Kotchmann and prospects. Even before this last trade, the Angels were playing like the best team in baseball. Teixiera will become a free agent after this season. It's clear that the Angels plan to make a strong run to keep him. Essentially out of the pennant race, the Braves decided to get a major leaguer in return, rather than the two draft picks they would have gotten when Teixiera left as a free agent after the season. I was surprised that the Angels would risk their team chemistry for a possible two-month player rental.
Going back to the divisions, the Phils reeled off a five-game winning streak to reestablish a slim one-game lead in NL East. The Mets, who made no deals at the deadline, are second. The Marlins, rumored to be pursuing Ramirez, but standing pat in the end, are third just 1-1/2 games back. The Phils' bats overcame some shoddy pitching against the Braves (Atlanta scored 8, 10 and 9 in the three games) to win two of three. Everything came together well in a three-game sweep of the lowly Nationals.
In NL Central, the Cubs made their opening argument for the division title, sweeping the heretofore hot second-place Brewers in a four-games series in Milwaukee. The sweep, enjoyed by many Cubs' fans who made the short trip north, pushed the Cubs' lead out to five games. As I write this the lead stands at four games over both the Brewers and Cardinals. Oft-injured OF Alfonso Soriano is back in the Cubs lineup and hitting well. Even having closer Kerry Wood on the DL hasn't slowed down Chicago in their quest for their first World Series in 63 years and their first World Championship in 100 years. As they move cloer I expect ESPN will track down Steve Bartman, who foiled the Cubs last chance for the Series in 2003 when he interfered with a foul pop in the Cubs' NLCS loss to the Florida Marlins.
Arizona led the NL West with a sub-.500 record for awhile, but an 8-2 stretch pulled the D-Backs to a semi-respectable 57-52 record and a three-game lead over the Dodgers. The futility of the division leaders probably kept Matt Holliday in Colorado as the Rockies trail Arizona by just eight games despite a 19-39 road record. As the trade deadline approached, there was lots of speculation that Holliday's big bat would be moving, but he remains a Rockie. SS Troy Tulowitzki rejoined the Rockie lineup from the DL. Colorado will probably need another streak like last year when they won 14 of 15 games to end the regular season to get back in the playoffs.
In AL East, the Red Sox look like less of a sure thing as the season goes on. They are three games behind divison-leading Tampa Bay and just 2-1/2 games ahead of the Yankees. The Rays continue to apply their formula of good pitching and defense and just enough hitting. For the Sox, Manny Ramirez may have been a distraction and unreliable (at least according to his teammates, who were interviewed by management on a one-on-one basis before the Dodger deal was made), but they may miss his formidable bat and knowledge of the Green Monster. Josh Beckett's ERA has crept above four, and the Sox start many games with at least three "out men" in their lineup - slumping catcher Jason Varitek, light-hitting OF Coco Crisp and rookie SS Jed Lowrie (though he is hitting .280). OF Jacoby Ellsbury has also seen his average slump below .260 with an OPS of just 677 (he does have 35 steals in 42 attempts). Starting pitcher Joba Chamberlain has settled nicely into his role as the Yankees number three starter. The rotation falls off a cliff after Pettite, Mussina and Chamberlain as the Yanks had to hire Sidney Ponson, persona non grata in most MLB clubhouses, to make some starts. Offensively, the Yanks miss DH/LF Hideki Matsui, but did add Xavier Nady to fill the gap. Alex Rodriguez is quietly having another fine season (.323 BA and 1007 OPS) and with a strong August/September that pushes the Yankees into the playoffs could still contend for another his fourth MVP award.
The White Sox lead the Twins by the slimmest possible margin of 1/2 game in AL Central. Slugging OF Carlos Quentin, who had a terrible 2007 (.214 BA 647 OPS) in 229 AB with Arizona, has to be in the MVP discussion with 28 HRs, 83 RBIs and a 934 OPS in 2008. Veteran OF running mate Jermaine Dye has quietly put together a similar season (25 HRs, 67 RBIs, 936 OPS). The Twins tightened this division by winning three of four in a midweek series with the Sox in Minnesota. I'll have more on the Twins next week, assuming they don't collapse.
The Angels (now a gaudy 69-40) and the Rangers offensive stars (Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler) are the only stories left in AL West, which the Halos lead by an imposing 12.5 games. Key for LA has been their now amazing 39-19 record on the road. They won all ways in the past week, 12-6 over the Red Sox using three three-run homers, and 1-0 over the Yankees, combining a 5-hitter by Ervin Santana with Francisco Rodriguez's 45th save. I suspect that K-Rod will be able to both break the MLB save record of 57 and rest for the playoffs.
In which dadlak investigates the disappearance of the Phillies recent four-and-a-half game lead and analyzes the anonymous brilliance of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
July 20 - He Talks About Angels -My first baseball post in almost a month comes in two parts. I'm about through with the All-Star Game; I'll add more if I think of anything else.
In the NL East, the Phillies somewhat comfortable 4.5 game lead is now gone, all gone. Though the Phils righted the ship somewhat after losing six straight, the Mets went on a 10-game winning streak. Now both teams have 53-46 records; the Marlins are biting near the surface at 52-46 after winning two of three from the Phils in Florida.
Good news for the Phils is the resurgent bat of slugger Ryan Howard, who now leads the NL in both HR and RBI. Despite the good power numbers, Howard was passed over for the All-Star team, a rare omission of the HR/RBI leader from the roster, but based on his .230 batting average and almost 130 strikeouts. Still, runs have been hard to come by for the Phils, and opponents' run have been sometimes hard to stop. After suffering with Adam Eaton give up eight earned runs in consecutive starts, the Phils reacted by trading for A's righthander Joe Blanton, only 5-12 this year, but coming off a 15-win season with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2007. Blanton will be thrown directly into the fire against the Mets on Tuesday.
In NL Central the Cubs continue to lead the Cards and Brewers, though not by much; the Brewers are just 3.5 games back in third. Milwaukee made two trades--the huge acquisition of Indians ace and reigning Cy Young winner CC Sabathia, and a lesser move to get 2B Ray Durham from the Giants. Sabathia moves into their rotation right behind Ben Sheets; Durham should get significant playing time as cant-miss prospect Rickie Weeks from Baton Rouge continues to struggle at the plate. Durham should also be a valuable PH. With pitchers batting eighth and a patchwork lineup, the Cards have stayed in the hunt and ahead of the vastly more talented Brewers. By season's end, I expect the Brewers to be the NL wild card and the Cards to get accolades for improving so much from last year's dismal record. The Brewers and Cards match up in tomorrow's Monday Night Baseball game on ESPN.
The NL West threatens to put a sub-.500 team in the playoffs. Hitting-poor Arizona leads the Dodgers by a game. The Rockies have moved up to third--just seven games out despite being 15 under .500. With the trade of Durham it appears that the Giants will rework their aging and mediocre everyday lineup rather than continue the illusion that they are contending. On an All-Star related thought, I was impressed by Dodger catcher Russell Martin. LA fans told me he was the real thing, but I hadn't seen him enough to choose him ahead of Cubs rookie Geovany Soto. Martin did it all for the NL All-Stars, catching, throwing and hitting. I can see why the Dodgers moved on from Paul LoDuca to this guy, who could lead them to the playoffs in this weak division.
In the American League, a fascinating three-way race is shaping up in the East. Just when it looked like Tampa Bay might shock the world by running away with the division, they hit a seven-game losing streak, being swept by the Indians, of all teams. With the Red Sox playing this evening, the Rays lead the division by a game over the Sox and by 4.5 over the Yankees, who can't be counted out despite their ongoing dramas, which include Joba Chamberlain's role, Jorge Posada's shoulder and Alex Rodriguez's marriage. For the Sox, David Ortiz is completing a rehab assignment in Portland. They'll be happy to see his big bat back in the lineup as they feature light-hitting Julio Lugo, Jason Varitek and Coco Crisp in the lineup on many nights.
The White Sox and Twins are locked in a tight battle for AL Central, with the Sox up by just half a fame. If these teams falter, the Tigers have recovered to .500, though they may not have enough pitching for a stronger move in the standings. At this point, all the Indians can move to salvage is fourth place ahead of the Royals, whom they trail by 1.5 games.
In AL West, the Angels have posted baseball's best record so far - 21 games above .500 and 8.5 wide games ahead of the second place Athletics, who've been busy trading their best pitchers (Rich Harden and Joe Blanton) for prospects. (I'm glad I didn't prepare a detailed analysis.) The hard-hitting Rangers (MVP candidates Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler) are close behind in third, but like the Tigers, may not have enough pitching to contend for the division or wild card. I'm watching the Angels against the Red Sox tonight--they seem to have a chemistry that transcends the performances of their individual players as non-entities like Maceo Izturis, Howie Kendrick and Casey Kotchmann (the hardest man to strike out in the AL) play on an everyday basis. I can't even tell you the name of their catcher (his name is Mathis). They used to have a Molina or two, but that information is probably out of date. Their pitchers and catchers have surrendered 28 straight successful stolen bases, attesting to the limited value of defense against the stolen base. Their most recognizable players are former MVP Vladimir Guerrero, who already deposited a TimWakefield high knuckler in the left field seats, and closer Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez, whose 38 saves puts him well on the way to breaking the single season record of 57, which has stood since 1990. The only barrier in his way would appear to be a desire to save K-Rod for the playoffs, given that the Angels have such a huge lead in AL West. Winning on the road is a big factor in the Angels success - their 31-18 road record is by far the best in baseball. Despite two HRs tonite, the Angels style is very much counter to baseball trends elsewhere--their players swing away rather than work the count, and Manager Mike Scioscia embraces one-run strategies like sacrifices and squeeze plays rather than waiting on the three-run homers. The Angels might even be the greatest unknown franchise in sports, as they've averaged over 40,000 per game attendance for the last five years. Since 2002, they've won the World Series and three other division titles, not including a likely one in 2008. As Wendy's says, that's way better than fast food, or at least any franchise but the Red Sox.
In which dadlak emerges from the road to talk about the recent Major League All-Star Game.
July 19 - Wow, a lot has happened since my last MLB post. Sorry for the delay. My family and I have been on a long car trip through the eastern US, going as far north as Kittery Point, ME and now landing in Orlando, FL. I've been posting a diary at http://ztrip2008.blogspot.com/ and photos at www.photoblog.com/dadlak which has left less time to post on MLB, even though I've kept up with what's going on. Here's an update.
MLB All-Star Game - The fans did a decent job choosing starters - better in the AL than NL, where a phalanx of Cubs' fans put both Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano in the outfield lineup over much more deserving players like Pat Burrell, Ryan Ludwick and Matt Holliday. I was in Philly during the week when the last roster spot was being filled by fan vote. "Vote for Pat" was everywhere in Citizens Bank Park. I did my part by voting for Burrell ten times, but Pat fell short as the fans went for Milwaukee outfielder Corey Hart. This was a bit of a shame, not for Hart obviously - he's an up and coming player, but for the veteran Burrell, who's had the best first half of his career, with 23 HRs and lots of big late-game RBIs, and had a great second half in 2007 during the Phillies division run. Pat the Bat is also one of the league leaders in walks. NL Manager Clint Hurdle had a chance to add Burrell to the roster when Soriano was hurt, but went for Mets 3B David Wright, a selection that's hard to fault given that he could be an MVP candidate again by the end of the season.
In the AL, voters chose Tampa Bay rookie 3B Evan Longoria for the last roster spot. Longoria has had a fine season for the surprising Rays, but I'm convinced that some folks thought they were voting for TV star and Tony Parker spouse Eva Longoria, whose name differs by just one letter. I voted for White Sox OF Jermaine Dye, who's had a great offensive first half for the first place and otherwise offensively challenged Chicago White Sox.
Other omissions of note focused on pitchers. I was very surprised that Phillies ace Cole Hamels missed out, and somewhat surprised that perennial All-Star Johan Santana wasn't chosen. Santana's modest W/L record is more a result of poor run support than bad pitching. In the AL, Red Sox stars Josh Beckett and Daisuke (sic?) Matsuzaka rested over the break, the latter despite a 10-1 W/L record, as did surprising Yankee ace Mike Mussina, who amassed an 11-6 record and held together an otherwise shaky starting staff for the Yanks.
The game itself was one for the ages. Lasting a record-tying 15 innings, the game came within an inning of seeing position players J.D. Drew and David Wright on the mound. At 1:30 a.m. I was ready for the game to end, moreso if the NL took the lead, but I would have loved to see "This One Counts" get into such a pickle. Two pitchers who threw more than 100 pitches on Sunday, Brandon Webb of the D-Backs and Scott Kazmir of the Rays, both threw an inning. The NL's last pitcher, Phillies closer Brad Lidge, had warmed up several times getting ready to close out an NL win that never happened. AL Manager Terry Francona had committed to Rays management that he wouldn't overuse their young ace Kazmir. FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver talked a lot about the prospect of a tie, an impossibility according to post-game comments by Commissioner Bud Selig. They never discussed the prospect of position players taking the mound. I doubt I'll live long enough to see anything close to this situation again, although it has happened now twice in just seven games.
Otherwise the game two highlight reels of exciting plays. The AL stole five bases. Their game-winning run came on a short fly ball to RF on which Justin Morneau scored inches ahead of Corey Hart's throw. Earlier in extra innings, NL outfielder Nate McLouth threw out Dioner Navarro by an inch or less to keep the game going. Marlins 2B Dan Uggla suffered a "three-peat" night - three errors and three strikeouts. In his other AB he hit into a double play. Ugg!
The prelude Home Run Derby may have been an omen of excitement to come as Rangers OF sensation Josh Hamilton hit 28 home runs in one round. Unlike the game the contest ended anticlimactically, as Hamilton lost by an exhausted 5-3 score to the Twins' Justin Morneau in the final round.
Back later with divisional updates. The short story is that the Phils still lead NL East by a game over the Mets, who recently had a 10-game win streak stopped by the Reds. Whew! The Phils play the Marlins in Florida today.
In which dadlak the Phillies fan is a little sad and bemoans baseball's split rules system (pictured is Ronnie Blomberg of the Yankees, baseball's first DH)
June 25 - DH or No DH, That Is The Question - Life is good but baseball is depressing as the Phillies lost their sixth straight game last night. Still, their standing among NL teams hasn't change much as the entire National League continues to struggle in interleague play. Over the last ten games for each team, NL teams are a cumulative 32 games below .500--an average record of 3.4 wins and 6.6 losses. Keep reading for my views on the DH rule, the most obvious difference between the two leagues.
NL East - The Phillies vaunted offense shut down this week, scoring just 12 runs in their six-game losing streak, which featured a sweep in Philly by the LAA Angels. Chase Utley broke an 0-24 slump, but no one is hitting very well, despite the team being healthy as a group for the first time all year. Fortunately for Phillies' fans the rest of the division has struggled as well. The Marlins pulled to within one game of first; the Mets and Braves are both within 4.5 games, despite two ugly losses by the Mets in New York to the lowly Mariners (5-2, a game featuring the first grand slam home run by an American League pitcher (Felix Hernandez) in about 40 years) and 11-0). Chipper Jones slipped below .400 at .395. Moving a batting average up from .395 is a tough proposition. I predict he'll not spend another day above .400 this season.
NL Central - This supposedly weak division now boasts the three best records in the NL by the Cubs, Cards and Brewers, who have won eight of their last ten to move nine games above .500. Even the Pirates have been respectable - 24-16 at home and coming off a 12-5 trouncing of the Yankees to salvage a little dignity for the NL.
NL West - The Diamondbacks continue to sink into the quicksand of this division, only to find that their rivals have sunk even deeper. Just two games over .500, the Snakes continue to lead the punchless Dodgers by 4 games. Having shown some signs of like behind the big bat of 1B Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres retreated to the basement with a 2-8 stretch.
AL East - The Red Sox and Rays continue their spirited battle for the top spot with Boston leading by a game this week. The Yankees and Orioles are both above .500. Toronto reacted to being last in this division by firing their manager, John Gibbons, and replacing him with their former manager, Cito Gaston. The Jays are an underachieving bunch. Erstwhile sluggers Scott Rolen and Alex Rios (who competed in last year's home run derby) have a total of nine home runs.
AL Central - A great week by the Twins pulled them within 1.5 games of the division-leading White Sox. The Tigers won enough to move just four games under .500 and six games out of the lead with more than half the season left. The Indians are the Mets of the AL, mysterious lurking in the second division.
AL West - The Angels sweep of the Phillies propelled them to a 48-30 record, best in the American League. Vladimir Guerrero slugged several home runs. The Athletics are eight games over .500, but there's no time this week for analysis of their success.
To DH or not to DH, that is the question - I tend to agree that nothing seriously broken about the game was fixed by the DH rule (although pitcher hitting, if not broken, is a pretty sad sight). Still, once an "experiment" has been in place for 35 years, it can no longer be considered experimental. Selig should get off his butt and push owners in one league or the other to standardize the rule. Which other major sport operates using two different sets of rules? None--when the NFL and AFL merged they developed a common set of rules. Same for the NBA and ABA. After 35 years of successful use (as evidenced by dominance of AL over NL in World Series, Interleague play and All-Star Game for most of this period, and by the likely election of a nearly fulltime DH to the Hall of Fame (most likely Frank Thomas) some time in the next 10 years), the DH "experiment" should be judged a success and adopted in both leagues. This all comes from a National League fan, but one who's not mesmerized by sacrifice bunts and the revered "double switch". AL managers have just as hard or harder job figuring out when to change pitchers, given that their decision isn't driven by when a pinch hitter is needed.
In which dadlak goes birdwatching, enjoys a satisfying Monday night, and notices a concentration of Manuels.
June 18 - Report from Birdland - I'm in the Baltimore area this week where I went to an exciting interleague game (my first other than the 1983 World Series and spring training games) between the Orioles and the Astros, won by the O's 6-5 on an 8th inning double by 3B Melvin Mora and a strong 9th inning by unknown closer George Sherrill (I'd never heard of him until last night, but he has 23 saves.) Neither of these 500-ish clubs figures much in the pennant races, so I'll move on to my regular weekly update.
In NL East, the division-leading Phillies had an odd week, sandwiching two monster wins, 20-2 over the Cards and 8-2 over the Red Sox (the latter on ESPN Monday Night Baseball being one of the most satisfying regular season games I've seen on television--Ryan Howard hit two HRs and a 3B; Pat Burrell also tripled for the first time since 2006), in among several close defeats. Probably the most galling was a 6-5 loss to the Cards that ended on a throwing error by Phillies' pitcher Tom Gordon. They still hold a 3-game lead over the Marlins. The big news in the division, however, was the Mets' firing of manager Willie Randolph. The move had been widely anticipated, but the Mets pulled it off with singular class (low) at 3 a.m. on a West Coast road trip after a Mets' win. Bench coach Jerry Manuel, former manager of the Chicago White Sox, takes over as interim manager. There are now two managers named Manuel (Phillies' Charlie is the other - I ate lunch in his hometown of Buena Vista, VA this week) just in NL East. (It's possible that the same situation existed in AL Central a few years ago when Charlie managed the Indians and Jerry the White Sox.) Chipper Jones average drifted down toward .400 as he suffered through his first mini-slump of the season. Adding injury to insult, he also got hit by his own batting practice ball, which ricocheted off the top of the batting cage and into his eye.
The Cardinals' strong play keeps the Cubs from running away with NL Central. The Cubs' 45-26 record is the best in baseball, but only 3-1/2 games better than the Cards. The loss of OF Alfonso Soriano to injury for awhile ought to hurt, but this team is going well enough to absorb it. I'm pushing Cards' OF Ryan Ludwick for the All-Star team. He's among the NL's top sluggers in his first year as a regular.
Arizona can't do much in NL West, but their pursuers are playing even worse. Their lackluster 37-34 record still leads the division by 4-1/2 games over the light-hitting Dodgers, who may struggle even more with ace pitcher Brad Penny on the DL.
In AL East, the Red Sox lead the Rays by two games (none in the "all-important" loss column) while the Yankees seem to be awakening from their slumber. A five-game winning streak has them five over .500. Their offense has been crushing the ball since Jorge Posada came off the DL. The spunky Orioles continue to play .500 ball with what appears to be a mediocre to anonymous lineup. (OF Nick Markakis looks like a good young player; it's hard to get excited by vets like Melvin Mora, Aubrey Huff and Kevin Millar).
The Tigers of all teams are making a move in AL Central. An 8-2 stretch has them five below .500 and 6-1/2 behind the White Sox. Dontrelle Willis won't be contributing much (little change there) as he was sent to Class A to work out his pitching problems. Some of the Tigers' relievers are getting healthy, which helps if you can score enough runs to get the lead.
The Athletics put together a 4-game winning streak to pull within 3 games of the AL West-leading Angels. Oakland will need to keep this up for another week before I'll put together an incisive look at this otherwise unknown team.
In which dadlak considers a singular game by the Phillies' "Flyin' Hawaiian" and travels (statistically) to LAA (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) land.
June 9 - Flyin' Hawaiian - As long as the Phillies stay in first, I'll open with the NL East. Not only did the Phils stay in first, they extended their lead to 3-1/2 games over Florida by winning all but one game during the week, including a three-game sweep of the Braves in Atlanta. Braves' players, coaches and fans had to be sick over Friday night's game, which Atlanta lost in 10 innings after 2B Kelly Johnson dropped a popup with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The Phils tied the game on the error, added two in the top of the 10th and held on for the win when CF Shane Victorino threw out a Braves runner at the plate to end the game. Victorino had an amazing, perhaps one-of-a-kind game, hitting two triples, scoring the Phils' first run after the first, and driving in the tiebreaking run in the 10th and scoring the eventual game-winner on an Utley double with the second--all before he threw out the potential tying run by about an inch in the bottom of the 10th. Triples and game-ending plays at the plate rank among the most exciting plays in the game. In fact, Luke "The Loner" Gofannon, the hero of Philip Roth's comic baseball novel The Great American Novel tells his girlfriend, Angela Whittling Trust, that he loves her more than home runs, but that he doesn't love anything or anyone more than triples. The sweep of the Braves gave the Phils the best road record in the NL at 18-13.
In the rest of the division, Chipper Jones carries his .400 average further into the season than any player since Paul O'Neill in 1994 (he finished a long way under the mark), but both the Braves and the rest of the NL East teams have been under .500 while the Phils have won eight of ten.
The Cubs continue their strong play in NL Central, improving their record to 40-24, the best in the majors. The Cards remain 2-1/2 games back. The Brewers swept both the Astros and D-Backs to pull three games over .500. Ken Griffey, Jr. finally hit his 600th career home run today, becoming just the sixth player to reach that total (Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Sosa being the others). Reds' pitcher Edinson Volquez continues to give the club hope for the future with an 9-2 record and 1.56 ERA. He held the hard-hitting Phillies to just two hits in the Phils' only loss of the week.
What was supposed to be the strongest division in the NL, with 2007 playoff qualifiers Colorado and Arizona, and near-qualifier San Diego, now looks like the worst, as the Diamondbacks reign NL West by 3-1/2 games despite being just four games over .500. With a 29-35 record, the Giants are slightly better than expected. The Padres, winners of seven out of 10, show some signs of coming to life. The Rockies at 24-39 and beset by injuries, have been mostly awful.
The big story in the American League was a bench-clearing brawl between the Red Sox and Rays. Coco Crisp charged the mound. Seven players will serve suspensions due to the ensuing melee. The fight notwithstanding, the Sox had a great week, sweeping the Rays in Boston and retaking first place in AL East. Manny Ramirez covered well for injured DH David Ortiz, hitting four more home runs.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen almost got fired for calling out his GM (begging for roster moves), but its hard to fire the skipper of a club with a 6-1/2 game lead, the White Sox current margin in AL Central. Their lead expanded quickly as the Sox matched a seven-game win streak with a five-game loss streak by the Twins.
In AL West, the Angels stretched their lead to 4-1/2 games over the A's. I promised more details on the LAA's, so here they are. Despite having familiar offensive performers such as Vladimir Guerrero, Garrett Anderson and Torii Hunter in their lineup, the team has just one regular (1B Casey Kotchman) with an OPS above .800. Clearly, this club is being carried by its pitching, which includes starters Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana with 9-2, 2.63 and 8-2, 3.01 records respectively. Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez converts almost every late lead to a win with 26 saves and a 2.17 ERA in 31 appearances. Somewhat ominously, Saunders has just 24 career wins, and Santana is pitching far ahead of 2007's 7-14, 5.76 record. Santana did pitch well in 2005 and 2006, and has 76 Ks vs 19 BBs.
In which dadlak enjoys a birthday gift, considers 100 years of Cub history, and almost confuses a rookie outfielder with a classic rock guitarist
June 2 - Meet the Bruces - The big news (at least for me) is in the National League this week, so I'll start there. The Phillies and Marlins played hot potato with the NL East lead this week in a three-game series in Philadelphia. The Phils had pulled within a half-game of the Marlins by sweeping the Rockies, and then took over first for a few hours with a 12-3 trouncing of the Fish on Friday night. The heavy duty run support and an 11-strikeout effort got Brett Myers his first win since April 17. The Marlins returned the favor and regained the lead on Saturday, beating Phillies' ace Cole Hamels 7-3. Sunday's game, like a gift televised by TBS on my birthday, was a tenser affair, as the Marlins built an early 5-1 lead on two homers by 1B Matt Jacobs, only to see the Phils claim their 14th come-from-behind win of the season 7-5. Jamie Moyer recovered from an ugly start to finish seven innings and earn the win. Chase Utley hit his major's leading 20th home run of the season. Geoff Jenkins came off the bench to hit a game-tying 2-run pinch homer, his first pinch hit of the season. Pat Burrell capped the offensive excitement with a clutch 2-run double in the Phils' seventh. Tom Gordon and Brad Lidge each pitched a clean inning. Homer man Jacobs batted with no one on in the ninth. The Marlins did their part in the field with a couple of costly errors, a hit batsman and a wild pitch. The win only secured a half-game lead for the Phils, but the team's overall play has been encouraging--strong offense with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino back at the top of the lineup and Ryan Howard contributing; improved starting pitching as Adam Eaton and Brett Myers both earned wins with solid performances, and continued excellent work by a bullpen with the best ERA in the majors (who saw that coming?). Thanks to Charley Manuel and the guys for a great birthday present!
The Braves fell back to a tie for third with the Mets after being swept by the Reds. Atlanta hold the dubious honor of having the game's worst road record at 7-21. Perspective is everything, as the Mets mollified their fans with two wins in three games with the Dodgers. Costly ace Johan Santana -got his 100th career win. Santana pushed his season record to 7-3 with a 3.20 ERA, despite surrendering 12 homers in just 81 innings of work.
The Cubs had their way in NL Central and at 36-21 actually hold the majors' best record on June 1, their first such distinction in 100 years (not coincidentally, exactly as long as it's been since the franchise's last World Series win). The club has a couple of concerns--centerfield, where broken-down Jim Edmonds is getting a look and closing, which oft-injured Kerry Wood is doing, but for how long. The Cubs are a gaudy 26-8 in front of the Wrigley Field faithful. Close behind are the rival Cardinals, just 2-1/2 back. The Astros moved close to contention, but fell back with an ugly five-game losing streak in which their heretofore high-powered offense plated a total of five runs. They're now trying to hold off the resurgent Brewers and Reds for third. Reds' rookie right fielder Jay Bruce (almost said Jack Bruce there, guitarist for the old rock supergroup Cream) is tearing up the league, hitting .591 with 2 HRs and just one K in his first 22 major league ABs. One of the homers was a walk-off blast to beat the Braves 8-7 in a nationally-televised game. Bruce is 21 years old. His life is good. He's been playing CF ahead of regular CF Ryan Freel while Ken Griffey chases his 600th career HR (he's up to 599). Bruce's ascendance has fed speculation that the Reds will trade Griffey.
The Diamondbacks continue to have NL West to themselves, as the Giants, Padres and Rockies flounder well below .500 and the Dodgers struggle (winning just two of their last 10). Still, a 32-25 overall record and four wins in their last ten games take some of the luster off what appeared to be the best team in the NL for awhile.
In NL East, the Rays continue their run at the top. At 35-22, the second -best record in the game, they hold a one-game lead over the Red Sox and have won eight of their last ten games. They swept the AL Central-leading White Sox over the weekend, holding the Pale Hose to just four total runs. Ace Scott Kazmir pitched seven shutout innings on Saturday, bettering his record to 5-1 and lowering his ERA to 1.22. In Sunday's game, reserve OF Gabe Gross hit a walkoff homer.
The Rays don't have to look far over their shoulders to find the defending World Series champion Red Sox. Manny Ramirez ended the quest for his 500th career homer by hitting that milestone blast and another in consecutive games against the Orioles. The Yankees may have righted their ship, winning seven of 10, getting back to .500 and overtaking the Orioles for fourth.
In AL Central, the White Sox lead shrank to just a game over the Twins. Almost shockingly, the Indians dropped to six games under .500 and five games off the division lead. Rumors abound that Indians' ace CC Sabathia could be traded. Still, with relatively weak teams ahead of them, the Indians, and perhaps even the Tigers (six games back) have hope of winning the division.
The Angels stretched their AL West lead to 3.5 games over the A's. I will learn more about them for next week's report. Their team notes report that the Halos won four games in their last AB during a six-game homestand, two in the ninth and two in extra innings. Quite a treat for their fans, unless, like many Southern Californians, they completed their social obligations and left after the sixth inning. I should also mention the Rangers' sensational outfielder Josh Hamilton, who leads the AL in RBI and is near the top in most other offensive categories. Hamilton got a Sports Illustrated cover story this week. Along with his offensive prowess, Hamilton's claim to fame is being a recovering substance abuser, who has to pee in a jar every three days. Some observers call Hamilton "the best player (they've) ever seen." I might have to watch one of these Ranger games that come on Fox Sports Southwest every so often.
In which dadlak diagnoses the first-place Tampa Bay Rays and commiserates with Padres and Rockies' fans.
May 26 - Rays X-Rayed - In the AL East, Tampa Bay regained a 1/2 game lead with a crisp sweep of Baltimore while the Red Sox lost three straight to the A's in Oakland. I could be watching the Rays on Fox Sports tonight, but the family has taken over the TV for an indispensable episode of "Greek", which for its general lack of charms is less objectionable than "Gossip Girl." The Rays are 10 games above .500 for the first time in franchise history. Not great in either pitching or hitting (fifth in both runs scored and ERA) the Rays emulate the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks' success formula--win the close ones and lose the blowouts. Left fielder Carl Crawford has been a decent player with the club since coming up in 2002, specializing in triples (19 in 2004) and stolen bases (58 with just 9 caught stealing in 2006). With just 180 walks and 532 strikeouts in 3500 career AB's, Crawford's plate discipline could be better, particularly for a guy who hits at the top of the order. Twenty-three year-old CF B.J. Upton looks like the core of the franchise (828 OPS with 13 SB), at least until he can become a free agent. On the defensive side, two young starters, James Shields and Edwin Jackson, have pitched well to mediocre records (7-6 combined) while Andy Sonnastine has racked up a 6-2 record with a 5.09 ERA. Promising starter Scott Kazmir came off the DL to post a 4-1 record and 1.50 ERA in five starts. Reclamation project Troy Percival, who pitched only 65 innings over the last three seasons, and not at all in 2006, anchors the Rays' bullpen with 14 saves (in 16 chances) and a 2.61 ERA. With only 21 errors in the first 50 games, the Rays appear to have a good defensive club as well.
I see two possible paths for the Rays--walking the tightrope the rest of the way (ala the '07 D-Backs) to qualify for the postseason, probably as the AL wildcard; or falling back like the Mariners did after challenging the Angels in AL West last year. The cynic in me expects a collapse, based on the franchise's long history of losing, the club's youth, and the fragile health of their closer. The fan of the underdog in me hopes that the Rays can hold on for their first-ever postseason berth.
The White Sox continue to lead a surprisingly weak AL Central, in which the preseason favorite Indians and Tigers are a combined 44-56. The Twins offer the best competition so far at 25-25. In the AL West, it's still the Angels by a little over the A's, with the Mariners' disastrous season (18-33) scraping the bottom of the both leagues.
Paucity of hitting has become a leaguewide story, as barely ten AL players can post .300 batting averages. The Red Sox and pitching-poor Rangers are the only two teams averaging five runs per game in a season where the Tigers were expected to average six. (Detroit scored 19 in one game this week and followed with one the next.)
Over in the National League East, the Marlins are playing the Rays' role, leading by two games despite a low-budget payroll and low expectations. The Braves, led by Chipper Jones and his .417 batting average, are in second after sweeping four from the Mets, a streak that dropped the Mets to fourth and caused Mets's ownership to review their manager's status. Willie Randolph didn't help himself by commenting that criticism directed his way might be racially motivated. Ryan Howard is picking up his hitting for the Phillies (14 HRs, 34 RBIs despite a .204 average), who could use some better starting pitching to make a run for the top.
In NL Central, a good three-way race is shaping up among the Cubs, Cards and Astros, with the Cubs leading the Cards by a slim 1/2 game this week. The Cards have surprised offensively, while the Astros have gotten just enough pitching to back a very strong offense led by MVP candidate Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada. One positive sign for the Astros is that Roy Oswalt will almost certainly pitch better the rest of the way than he has so far (5.63 ERA).
Arizona stays atop NL West with a 30-21 record, but the Dodgers act like the main opposition, just 3-1/2 games back. Randy Johnson missed a golden opportunity to advance toward 300 career wins, pitching 6 innings and giving up only one run while striking out 10 and walking nobody. The D-Backs offense could muster only a sac fly along the way, and the Braves won in the bottom of the ninth on a walkoff 2-run homer by Jeff Francouer. If Andruw Jones can pick up from his pitiful pace (0.167, 2 HR, 7 RBI), L.A. could press the D-Backs even harder. The Rockies and Padres continue their disastrous seasons, combining for a 39-63 record, punctuated tonight by Colorado taking a 20-5 pasting from the Phillies in Philadelphia. The Padres are scoring just 3.5 runs per game, while the Rockies are giving up more than 5.
In which dadlak reports on the first week of interleague play, highlighted by such traditional rivalries as the Marlins and Royals, the Braves and A's, and Tampa Bay and St. Louis (well at least Anheuser-Busch has large breweries in both towns)
May 19 - Interleague Stories - Trying to get back on schedule after delaying last week's report until Wednesday.
In the AL East, the Red Sox regained first place. Young pitcher Jon Lester even pitched a no-hitter against the Royals, and Manny "Being Manny" Ramirez high-fived a fan during a relay throw to complete a double play (the accompanying picture isn't of that catch--Manny made this remarkable grab in 2004 vs. the Yankees - I'll try to add the You Tube video of Manny's catch, high five and throw - no such luck, the video got taken off You Tube before I could copy it). The Yankees sunk even further into the sea floor after losing two games to the Mets, the second by a dispiriting 11-2 margin, despite starting their ace Chien-Ming Wang. Without right-handed slugger Alex Rodriguez (due back later this week) and switch-hitting catcher Jorge Posada (unknown return from shoulder injury), the Yankees are proving quite vulnerable to good left-handed pitchers, as the Mets' Oliver Perez demonstrated with a 3-hitter over 7 innings. Tampa Bay held first place for four consecutive days for the first time in franchise history, but dipped back into second behind Boston, thus relieving me of the burden of learning about the anonymous roster for at least another week. This could be good news for the Rays, as my 2007 effort to learn about the equally anonymous Seattle Mariners was followed by that team's almost immediate departure from the pennant race and dismal start to their new season.
In AL Central, the Indians surprised the baseball world by losing three straight interleague games to the cross-state Cincinnati Reds. The AL has dominated interleague play for the last several years, so seeing a 2007 playoff team from the AL swept by an NL also-ran gets your attention. The White Sox put together a little streak at the expense of the lowly San Francisco Giants to regain first place. If they go on to win the division, Guillen's tirade last week will become the psychological stuff of legends. I still like the Indians, though their offense must improve.
The Angels and Dodgers traded lopsided wins in their interleague series. LAA of A retains a slight lead over Oakland in AL West. The Texas Rangers pounded lumps on the Astros, 16-8 in one game. Still, the Rangers won't contend if they have to score nine runs per game to win, which they might.
In NL East, the Phillies got off to a great start in their 1993 World Series rematch with the Toronto Blue Jays, winning the first game 10-3 behind Jayson Werth's three home runs, his first such game ever, including Little League. Ageless Jamie Moyer, who was active in 1993 (though not with the Phils or Jays) got the win. The Jays (you don't have to call them Johnson, either) rallied to batter other Phillies' starters and push the Phils back into a second-place tie with the Mets behind the division leading Florida Marlins. (After being shutout by the Nationals tonite, the Phillies are in third).
In NL Central, the Cubs continue in first, ahead of the Cards and Astros. Alfonso Soriano finally got his bat working, hitting seven homers in a week to silence calls to drop him and his sub-.200 average deep into the Cubs' batting order. Cincinnati celebrated with sweep of Cleveland by dealing with the ongoing rumors that Ken Griffey, Jr. will be traded. Junior is taking dead aim at 600 career home runs, but remains stuck at 597.
Arizona stretched its lead in NL West to 5-1/2 games. Randy Johnson got his fourth win with seven innings of shutout ball against the toothless Detroit ("they're not-so-great!") Tigers.
In which dadlak considers the possibility of a Sunshine Series, the prospect of a .400 hitter and the Hall of Fame potential of Astros 1B Lance Berkman
May 14 - Sunshine Supermen - Take a picture of the standings--the Tampa Bay Rays (you can call us Rays, or you can call us Jays, but you doesn't have to call us Devil Rays, or Johnsons, for that matter) are in first place in the AL East after pairing a win over the Yankees with a Red Sox loss to Baltimore. This is no doubt the latest in any season that the hapless Tampa Bay franchise (never a season above .500) has been in first place. I'll try to learn something about their players before my next update, assuming they're still in the race.
In AL Central, the Indians nosed above .500 at 20-19 and thus trail the Twins by just a half-game. The White Sox are just two games back, but not doing well enough to prevent a diatribe by their volatile manager Ozzie Guillen, who ripped both the press and White Sox fans in his latest profanity-filled tirade. Whatever changes the Tigers are making aren't helping much as their 16-23 record trails AL Central, behind even the Royals. Ace Justin Verlander's 1-6 record hasn't helped. The Tigers have gone 2-8 since nosing within a game of .500 after an 0-8 start.
More of the same in AL West, as the Angels and Athletics are paired at the top, just 1/2 game apart. The Rangers have shown some sign of life, winning 7 of their last 10 to pull within four games. We probably don't need to follow this story too closely, although it may save manager Ron Washington's job for awhile. The Mariners prevent the Tigers' ignominy from extending to having the worst record in the AL.
In the National League East, the Florida Marlins continue their bargain-basement run toward what now looks like a Sunshine Series. With an identical 23-16 record as the Rays, the Marlins have caused ESPN to ask the question, which Florida team will fade from contention first. The Marlins did sign superstar SS Hanley Ramirez to a rich contract this week, keeping their best player around for another six years. The Phillies and Mets lurk behind the Fish, with surprising relief pitching and come-from-behind hitting propelling the Phils to whatever success they've had. Future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez is struggling with his recovery from injury--no telling when he'll be back to help the Mets. Braves 3B Chipper Jones has people talking about a .400 season as he carries a .415 average into mid-May. .370 maybe--.400 doubtful--the pressure would be enormous, and the standard is just too far above Jones' .309 career average. His previous best season's average was .337 last year.
In NL Central, the Cards slipped a bit and now trail the Cubs by one game. In nine starts, Cubs' ace Carlos Zambrano has put together a 6-1 record and 2.03 ERA. Surprising in this division are the Astros, who have won 8 of 10 to surge to 22-18, just 1-1/2 games back. Leading the 'Stros is veteran first baseman Lance Berkman, who's hitting over .600 in May and .392 for the season with a Bonds-like 1.260 OPS. At 32-years old, switch-hitting Berkman has quietly racked up a very good career, .303 average, .981 career OPS with 273 HRs. A few more quality seasons will put Lance in line for a spot in the Hall of Fame. 500 career homers isn't out of reach for a guy who's stayed relatively healthy throughout. A quick look at baseballreference.com's page on Berkman indicates that he may not need too many more good seasons, having already amassed 80-90% of the offensive stats for a typical Hall of Famer. 500 homers would make him a shoo-in. Working against Berkman is his similarity to other non-Hall of Famers who tailed off quickly after strong starts to their careers - Dick Allen, Mo Vaughn, Albert Belle, and Jason Giambi.
A 4-6 stretch brought the Diamondbacks back closer to earth, but they still lead NL West by four games as the other clubs have slumped as well. The Rockies and Padres continue to disappoint, and now carry the two worst records in the National League, behind even the Nationals.
In which the retirement of Julio Franco causes Dadlak to revisit the career of Von Hayes.
May 4 - Phils' Comebacks Put Them On Top -The Red Sox reasserted control of AL East with three straight wins over Tampa Bay. The rest of the division is tightly bunched within 1-1/2 games. David Ortiz rediscovered his stroke, but sat out today with a knee problem.
The Twins are this week's AL Central leader as their 5-game winning streak coincided with a 5-game loss streak by the White Sox. The Royals sank to familiar territory below .500. The Tigers followed a sweep of the Yankees in New York by being swept by the Twins. Manager Jim Leyland is promising "drastic lineup changes" for the Tigers.
No big changes in AL West as Angels and Athletics continue in first and second. Both teams have excellent 10-5 records in road games.
In NL East, the Phils, Mets and Marlins are bunched within 1/2 game with the Phils on top after a couple of come-from-behind wins during the week. Reliever Brad Lidge remains unscored upon and got the win today as the Phillies came from behind to beat the Giants in the 9th on an unearned run. Phillie fans' favorite Chase Utley leads the majors with 13 home runs. Utley's level of play and $85 million, 7-year contract make it likely that he'll be in Philly for a long time. It is likely that Utley is already the greatest major leaguer ever whose last name starts with "U". Challengers would include '70s outfielder Del Unser, who had a 15-year career and played on the 1980 World Series champion Phillies, and Willie Upshaw, who hit 123 HRs in a 11-year AL career, mostly with the Blue Jays. Utley already has 110 HRs and .304 batting average (915 OPS) in a career that's just entering its sixth year.
The Cardinals continue to surprise in NL Central. They lead the Cubs by 1-1/2 after winning an ESPN game tonite by 5-3. The Astros have pulled up to .500, led by hot-hitting Lance Berkman.
In NL West, the Dodgers were the week's big story with an 8-game win streak that was broken today by the Rockies. Still, they trail the Diamondbacks by four games. Dodger shortstop Rafael Furcal is hitting about .380. Rockies' shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, last year's Rookie of the Year runnerup, is out until at least the All-Star break with a finger injury. Even with him, the Rockies have managed only a 10-19 record. It could be a long season for the defending NL champs.
This week's aging player note is the retirement announced by 49-year old Julio Franco. Franco was playing for the Quintano Roo Tigers of the Mexican League in his 27th professional season in the US, Japan, Korea, Mexico and his homeland Dominican Republic. To Phillies' fans, Franco is best known for being a part of the infamous 5-for-1 deal of 1982 in which the Phils traded Franco (then a young shortstop) and four others (Manny Trillo, Jay Baller, George Vukovich, and Jerry Willard) for Von "the next Ted Williams" (or as Chris Berman called him "Purple") Hayes. Tall and thin like Williams, Hayes finished his career in 1992 with a .267 batting average and 143 home runs, just 77 points and 378 home runs short of Williams. Like Williams, Hayes wore #9 and did have a good batting eye, drawing 121 walks in 1987, but he still finished about 1,300 walks shy of Williams' career total of 2,021. Von's major league career ended just 15 years before Franco's. According to baseball-reference.com, Hayes' career ended up being most similar to that of Twins' outfielder Matt Lawton, who retired after the 2006 season with a .267 average and 138 HRs.
May 2 - You Know My Name - Those first names are Kosuke Fukudome (from Japan) and Geovany Soto (from Puerto Rico). Without researching I can state with almost complete confidence that the Cubs are the first MLB team ever to have both these first names on their roster at the same time. Fukudome is featured in a Sports Illustrated cover article this week. The 31-year-old outfielder is something of a sensation in Chicago, despite hitting just one homer and driving in 10. His specialty is getting on base, something he's done to a .455 OBP, buttressed by 22 walks.
Soto (seen at right) made highlight shows with eight consecutive strikeouts (all his ABs in consecutive games--in one game he struck out five times against five different pitchers) followed just two games later by two 3-run homers. Overall, the rookie catcher has helped the Cubs build their 17-11 record with an OPS of 1.036 and 21 RBIs in 25 games, similar to the strong performance he showed in a late-season callup (1.100 OPS in 54 ABs) . He's just 25-years-old and makes a minimal salary.
April 28 - The Big Unit - My internet connection wasn't cooperating yesterday, but appears to be better now, so come back later today for this week's MLB update. The Phillies had a good road trip and have pulled above .500 with Chase Utley and Pat Burrell doing good impressions of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski in their prime.
The internet strikes again. I typed for 15 minutes, then couldn't save and lost all the new stuff. Here goes again. I'll be sure to highlight and copy before I try to save.
The American League East standings underwent a turnaround as the Red Sox lost five straight while the Rays won six in a row. They are tied at the top with the less streaky Orioles at 3 games over .500.
The White Sox lead a surprisingly lackluster AL Central at 15-10. The Indians are second, 2-1/2 games back. The Tigers have their offense going well enough to win a few games, but are still in last.
The Angels and Athletics co-lead the AL West at 16-10. The A's brought back DH Frank Thomas, released last week by the Blue Jays. Overall it looks like AL teams need a round of interleague games to improve their records.
In my beloved National League, the Marlins continue atop the East, led by SS Hanley Ramirez and LF Josh Willingham. No one expected much from this bargain-basement team. Just 1-1/2 back are the expected contenders, the Mets and Phillies. Mets' fans aren't too happy about the team's record, having expected a big start with new staff ace Johan Santana (who has actually pitched pretty well). Phillies' fans are probably a little happier, as they're hanging in there in April (traditionally a very slow month) with both reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins and starting CF Shane "The Flyin' Hawaaian" Victorino on the DL, while Ryan Howard's average hovers around .180.
The Cubs and Cardinals pace the NL Central. Led by veteran stars Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano, and newcomers Fukudome and Soto (need to look up those first names), the Cubs have a 16-9 record. The Cards are right behind at 16-10. Starter Adam Wainwright and perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols have the Cards playing far above their moribund 2007 level. Tony LaRussa has been batting his pitcher's 8th in the order, a tactic that must take a lot of explaining to his new 9th place hitters.
The best baseball in either league is being played by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who lead NL West by 6 games, and lead the expected favorite San Diego Padres by a whopping 8-1/2 games. Typical of the Padres struggles was a 1-0 loss to the D-Backs in which Brandon Webb outdueled 2007 Cy Young winner Jake Peavy. Webb's record advanced to Carltonesque 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA. Picking up where he left off in 2007 is starter Micah Owings, whose OPS so far is 865. Oh yeah, he's also 4-0 as a starting pitcher.
A third amazing performance by a Diamondback starter has come from 44-year-old future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. In three starts after an injury-plagued 2007, Johnson has 20 Ks in 16.2 IP, about his career strikeout rate. What a career this guy has had. He pitched his first full season at age 25, as a wild 6'10" oddity for the Seattle Mariners. In 1993, he figured it out, controlling his wildness and posting a 19-8 record and 3.24 ERA while striking out 308 and walking 99 in 255 innings. In his last full season with the Mariners (1997), Johnson was 20-4 with 2.28 ERA and 291 Ks and 77 BBs in 213 IP. From '93 to '97, Johnson's overall won/loss record was 75-20. More on Johnson later. Computer needed for stepson's social networking.
Back with more on Randy Johnson. After blowing through the National League to the tune of 10-1, 1.28 ERA and 116 Ks in 84 IP in a half-season of 1998 with the Houston Astros, Johnson moved over to the Diamondbacks and ran off four straight National League Cy Young Awards. Then at age 40 in 2004 he followed up with one his best seasons, despite poor run support that left him with a mediocre 16-14 record--290 Ks in 245 IP, allowing just 177 H and 44 BBs. The OPS of batters facing Johnson in 2004 was just 556, about 50 points below the career marks of Cesar Izturis and Augie Ojeda. This is for all the batters in the league for the entire year--amazing!
Johnson went to the Yankees for the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He won 17 games each season, but a 5.00 ERA in 2006 (his first above league-average ERA since 1989) and 60 HRs surrendered in two seasons convinced New York to cut ties with the then 42-year-old pitcher. His first season back with Arizona was effective (4-3, 3.81 ERA, 72 Ks in 57 IP), but cut short by injury.
For his career, Johnson has a 285-151 record (0.654) and 4636 Ks and 3077 hits allowed in 3872 IP. His postseason record, while not as spectacular at 19-16 with a 3.50 ERA, includes six wins in 2001, with three coming in the Diamondbacks win over the Yankees in the World Series, the third in a seventh-game relief appearance. For that Series, Johnson posted a 1.04 ERA, giving up just 9 hits and 3 walks in 17.1 IP while striking out 19.
Never very pretty, and a terrible hitter (.127 with 1 HR; striking out in almost half his plate appearances), Randy Johnson continues one of the most amazing pitching careers in Major League history. It would be great to see him get to 300 career wins and play in another World Series. The former might take two years; the latter maybe just one, given how Arizona has started the 2008 season.
April 20 - Jersey Jinx Averted in NYC - After another week the MLB standings look a little more normal. The Red Sox had a great week to take the AL East lead with a 12-7 record. Manny Ramirez hit three home runs against the Yankees, the first two of which encouraged Yankee reliever Kyle Farnsworth to throw behind his head, a move that earned Farnsworth an ejection and a 3-day suspension.
The Blue Jays released veteran DH Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas two days after benching him and one day after Thomas's rant about the lineup move. Thomas accused the Jays of benching him to avoid an 2009 option based on 376 plate appearances. Jays' management said they couldn't wait for Thomas's bat to warm up.
The big non-story of the week was discovery that a construction worker had buried a David Ortiz jersey in the foundation of new Yankee Stadium. The jersey was summarily dug up to avoid a possible "jersey jinx." ESPN provided round-the-clock coverage.
The White Sox took over from the Royals in AL Central. The Indians and Tigers remain 4th and 5th, but no further behind than they were last week. The Tigers' offense awakened as they scored 11 and 13 runs in wins over Minnesota and Cleveland.
In AL West, the Angels lead the Athletics by one game. Pitchers Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders both have 3-0 records.
In National League East, the Mets have won 8 of their last 10, including four in a row over nemesis Philadelphia to take the lead with a 10-6 record. Their pitchers gave up only 10 runs in their last five games. Chipper Jones of the Braves is having a Triple Crown April, leading the NL in batting average, homers and RBIs.
Surprisingly, the Cards continue to pace NL Central, with the Cubs close behind. Derrek Lee is off to a quick start after a lackluster 2007 season. Albert Pujols is hitting and drawing walks at an MVP pace. Free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse leads a so far effective Cardinal pitching staff.
The Arizona Diamondbacks threaten to run away with the NL West race. Their 13-4 record is four games better than the defending NL champion Colorado Rockies. The Padres are struggling at 8-10, as their offense hasn't yet clicked. They lost to the Rockies 2-1 in a 22-inning game.
Dragging bottom are the Nationals, Astros and Giants. We saw the Rockies thrash the Astros 11-5 just one day after the 22-inning game.
April 11 - Upside Down - The first two weeks of the season find the standings somewhat upside down as the American League division leaders are Baltimore (albeit by a slim 1/2 game over the Yankees), Kansas City and Oakland, none of whom came close to making the playoffs last year or were expected to this year. The Detroit Tigers, expected to field a dominating offense after their offseason acquisition of Miguel Cabrera, are last in AL Central at 2-8 after losing their first seven games, and just lost pitcher Dontrelle Willis, also acquired from Florida, to a knee injury. Cleveland, also expected to contend for AL Central honors, carries a 3-6 record after 2007 Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia was shelled for 12 hits and 9 runs in less than four innings of pitching against the Athletics.
In the National League the situation is similar as the division leaders are Florida, St. Louis and Arizona. At least there's one expected contender (the D-Backs) in there. The Marlins benefit from a thus-far MVP-style season from Hanley Ramirez. Albert Pujols is off to a good start with the Cards despite a sore elbow that would require Tommy John surgery if he were a pitcher. Not too unexpectedly, the Nationals, Astros and Giants trail the NL divisions.
On the individual front, both Livan Hernandez, who moved from the Diamondbacks to the Twins and Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang are 3-0. Wang pitched the Yankees to a 4-1 win over the Red Sox last night with a nifty 2-hitter.
Opening Days - Major League "Preseason" Predictions
April 4 - Life and sports are moving so fast that my preseason MLB predictions are now offset in time by about a week. This may be related to Einstein's theory of relativity, as I'm working my way through Walter Isaacson's biography of the scientific world's "father of the universe". I'll try to post some preseason/early season observations about each division over the weekend.
Division Winners - Mets, Brewers, Padres
Wild Card - Diamondbacks
NLCS - Mets vs. Padres
NL Champ - Mets
MVP - David Wright
Cy Young - Johan Santana
Braves, Phillies, Cubs and Rockies will also contend for wild card. Giants will be "for the ages" bad.
Division Winners - Red Sox, Indians, Angels
Wild Card - Tigers
ALCS - Red Sox vs. Indians
AL Champions - Red Sox
MVP - David Ortiz
Cy Young - Josh Beckett
Yankees will be only other wild card contender. Orioles may be worse than Giants.
World Series - Mets vs. Red Sox - won by Red Sox in six games
April 2 - Check out this link for one of the best baseball articles you will ever read. It's Tom Friend's (ESPN The Magazine) story about Tony Gwynn Jr.'s hit off Padres closer Trevor Hoffman near the end of last season, a hit that helped keep the Padres out of the playoffs.
April 1 - They started the Major League Baseball season in March! In Japan! During March Madness! What's up with that??
More than a week ago, my wife and I went to lunch in a new pizza restaurant in downtown Baton Rouge. The place featured more flat screen TVs than pizza ovens. To wile away the time while our pizza baked, we (at least I) watched a strange event on ESPN--the labor-delayed start of an exhibition baseball game from Florida. The Boston Red Sox were scheduled for a noon (Central) start against the Toronto Blue Jays in their spring home of Winter Haven, FL. The Sox players refused to start the game because of recent developments regarding their upcoming season-opening games against the Oakland A's in Japan. According to the players, either MLB or the Red Sox or both had reneged on a promise to provide "appearance money" to the team's coaches for the trip, while the players would receive $40,000 each. At the same time, the Sox players were threatening not to board the plane to Japan, scheduled to leave in just two or three days.
It was a strange scene to envision--lawyers, club officials and player reps working their phones and Blackberrys so that a spring training game could begin. But begin it did, about an hour late, and without scheduled started Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was shelved to preserve him to start Opening Day in Tokyo. Terms weren't announced, but the coaches did reportedly get some money ($25,000 each?)
The Sox and A's played their regular season games in Japan, winning one each, while exhibition games continued both during and after in Florida and Arizona and across the country as the teams headed toward their Opening Day destinations. The Japan games have happened twice before, but more or less outside my attention, which might have happened once again if not for lunch in the pizza joint.
On Sunday, March 30 the regular season started yet again with a game between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves at the Nationals' new eponymous Nationals Stadium (how clever--think of what the Defense Department could have come up with--Operation National Pastime; The Red Zone (after the Nats' colors--whoops that's already taken by football analysts)). President Bush threw out the first pitch to Nationals' manager Manny Acta. There was a story that Nationals' catcher Paul LoDuca was snubbed for some politically-motivated reason that I don't remember and which the White House denied. The Nationals won the one-game series with the Braves in fine style, 3-2 on a walk-off home run by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (great name, there). This game was on TV, but I missed it while watching a Netflix DVD of Dustin Hoffman in "Death of a Salesman" that had been around the house for nearly a month, gathering dust in the midst of March Madness. I did watch the "60 Minutes" report on one of my baseball idols, Bill James, a statistician who has changed the way many fans (and baseball management personnel, of whom he is now one) think about the game.
Most of the rest of the season got underway last night. Highlights and lowlights included a rainout in Yankee Stadium; the Braves and Pirates engaged in a battle of bullpen ineptitude won 12-11 by the Pirates in 12 innings (the Bucs blew a 9-4 lead in the 9th); the Nats extending their winning streak to two games with an 11-6 win over the Phils that featured Phillie closer Tom Gordon leaving the field with an ERA of 135.00 after surrendering 5 earned runs in 1/3 inning; Joe Torre and Johan Santana both enjoying successful debuts with their new clubs as Torre led the Dodgers to a 5-0 win over the toothless Giants, while Santana pitched the Mets past the Marlins 7-2 in Florida; the Royals nosing out the Tigers 5-4 in 11 innings; Cleveland outlasting the White Sox 10-8; Eric Gagne shortening his new career with the Brewers while getting the win by blowing a 3-0 lead in the 9th (the Brewers tacked on the winning run in the 10th); the Diamondbacks getting strong pitching from Brandon Webb to beat the Reds 4-2; and Jake Peavy shutting out the soon-to-be-hopeless Astros 4-0 in San Diego.
Tonite is April 1, and the rest of the teams (I think) will spring into action, spring weather permitting.
Oh yeah, neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens has found employment as a player for the 2008 season. Bonds says he is ready for the right opportunity. It's still early for Clemens, whose recent seasons have begun no sooner than June 1. The Giants "de-Bonds-ed" PacBell Park. Given how bad their team is likely to be, they may "reBonds" it by midseason to deflect attention from what's happening on the field.